Review: Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby

Wonder Show by Hannah Barnaby. Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012. Currently Available.

Genre: Historical Fiction.

Face Value: Exquisite. This is another cover suitable for framing. In fact, this is a book that I wanted to read entirely because I noticed this cover on bookstore shelves awhile ago, and gave into purchasing after looking at it longingly enough times. I particularly love the muted colors, and the impeccable detail. When you look closely at the cover, you can see almost every element of the story (from the conjoined twins to the bicycle) included here.

Does it Break the Slate? Oh yes. Portia is a Slatebreaker. She starts out Slatebreaking because she persists in being herself, even when the world around her is asking her to be something different.  The whole book paints a Slatebreaking portrait of the options available to women at this point in time, and how one young woman might find a way around them.

Who would we give it to? Did you read The Night Circus? Did you find its fantastical setting magical but feel that its characters left something to be desired? Then The Wonder Show is for you. If you like innovative storytelling and well crafted characters, and are entranced by really great writing, you will find something here. I’d recommend this book to both readers of historical fiction and of fantasy.

Review: Portia’s mother is dead and her father disappeared long ago. When her Aunt Sophia can’t take it anymore, she sends Portia off to McGreavey’s Home for Wayward Girls. It’s there that she’ll find out “there are far worse things than witches. Worse than bears. Worse than the devil himself.” Mister, who runs the home, is someone to be feared, and all the girls do. He hates Portia, but he likes her friend Caroline, which turns out to be worse. When things for Caroline go horribly wrong, Portia takes the Mister’s bicycle and leaves. It’s there that she meets up with Mosco’s Traveling Wonder Show and talks her way into a job in the Pie Car. At Mosco’s she starts to find the place that she was meant to be, even if she can’t quite escape the place that she came from.

Portia is amazing. Absolutely a Slatebreaker. She has her flaws and her doubts, but this is a girl who’s able to lie her way into a job with the circus and talk her way into keeping the job once the lie is exposed. She cares deeply about the people in her life, and will go to great lengths to protect them. But she is also consistently motivated by her own needs – taking action to ensure that she is moving towards what she wants in life. I both adored and was inspired by this character.

And even the characters we don’t know very well are richly drawn in Portia’s world. There’s never any doubt that she’s our hero, and that we’re following her story, but throughout it we get first person narrative glimpses into the worlds of the other characters in the book. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this occasional glimpse into the mindsets of other characters could feel jarring as it shifts focus away from Portia’s journey, but Barnaby gives us richly complete insights into the other characters that populate Portia’s world, and use those narratives to make her story more fully realized. Even the characters we hear only a few pages from – their stories are poetic and fully told in those pages. Violet I loved deeply, as well as the rest of the Lucasie family. The twins’ story broke my heart. With these stories being slowly doled out as Portia grows into her place with the Wonder Show, we come to love it as much as she does, and understand why she belongs there.

And then there’s Caroline. When first introduced, it’s clear to us that she is a Helen Burns figure – the sweet, sincere kindhearted girl to serve as foil to Portia’s spitfire Jane Eyre. But Barnaby makes Caroline’s story her own as well – and a devastating one, with real complexity. And it plays out in sharp contrast to Portia’s, as an image of the options that were available to young women in their position. When Caroline falls from grace, her options are limited. She wants so desperately to return home to her family that she cannot envision a world where she lets go of those expectations and moves on. Portia, on the other hand, seeing what has happened to her friend, has to move forward and forge her own path.

Interestingly, I found myself stumbling over the “genre” category with this book, because even though it’s absolutely historical realism, it reads like a fantasy. Something about Portia’s world, with its wicked orphanages and self-selected sideshow family feels incredibly magical. It’s a testament to the writing, that when I looked back I realized, there’s no magic at play here. Only beautifully crafted reality.

Ultimately this is about a girl who spend the whole book looking for her family. And she finds it, even though its not in the way that she expected. And Portia is no passive wishmaker – she goes out looking for the things she wants. She makes them happen. She finds her own happy ending in a way that speaks specifically to what she wanted all along.

Reviewed from copy purchased at Books of Wonder 

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