In a narrative that is by turns funny, informative and poignant, Wilkins chronicles a month on the road in his native Canada with the Great Wallenda Circus in the spring of 1997 and, in the process, offers remarkable insight into a subculture. A diverse assortment of gymnasts, animal trainers, daredevils and wanderers who identify themselves as circus folk that is slowly disappearing from public consciousness. Ricky Wallenda, the producer and organizer of the outfit, inherited his famous name from his grandfather Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous "Flying Wallendas" circus family. Wallenda, forced off the high wire and into show production by two harrowing accidents and haunted by the memory of family and personal tragedy, is an example of the dogged persistence that drives these performers to stay in the circus business despite the grind of constant travel and preparation, dwindling profits and omnipresent danger (what these circus folk have to say about tigers will make readers afraid of their Frosted Flakes). Wilkins's primary guide through both the lore and the practical reality of the circus is Bobby Gibbs, the 370-pound animal trainer and social provocateur who lovingly shepherds his 60-year-old, blind elephant, Judy, through the backroads and chilly arenas of Canada. Gibbs exhorts Wilkins to capture the experience truthfully: "Don't sugarcoat it!" Wilkins, with a love for the circus nurtured since childhood, balances his admiration for the performers and their craft with a probing exploration of their humanity.
The story begins in Sioux Narrows, Ontario on May 13, 1997 where the author, Charles Wilkins, tagged along for an entire month through the rural and remote areas of Canada with performers of the Great Wallenda Circus.
The line-up of performers were talented: David Connors was the prop boss and his wife, Sissy, was a aerialist; Wilson Barnes was a tiger trainer raising his three-year-old daughter, Connie, on the road; Bobby Gibbs was an elephant trainer, Bill Barren was a singing ringmaster; Pat Delaney ran the concession stand; and Jill Goncalves performed a wonderful sword balancing routine, to name a few.
The Wallenda Circus suffered a lot of tragedy first with the death of the patriarch Karl Wallenda when he died in a fall from the high wire in 1978. Six other family members died performing: uncles, cousins, an aunt, a grandfather, and a stepfather. The human pyramid collapsed during a show in Detroit on January 30, 1962 leaving two aerialists dead, a third paralyzed for life and a fourth with internal and head injuries.
In the late 1950’s they performed on the grandstand at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Ontario.
There were many obstacles for the Wallenda Circus to overcome: immigration regulations for both the performers and the animals; severe flooding from torrential rains; and vicious competition from other circus’s, to name a few.
The stories that the performers and workers tell about the very real delights and dangers of being part of a circus is breathtaking. The book conveys the sights, sounds, and smells of the circus as though you were really there and sitting under the Big Top! The description and detail makes the book come alive and I would highly recommend it to other people.