Sullivan Mintz lives in the town of Beanfield with his parents, who run the Stardust Home for Old People, and his younger sister, who seems to get all the family’s attention. Indeed, everyone seems to get more attention than 12-year-old Sullivan, who is such an everyman that his school nickname is “Mr. Average.” His one passion is juggling, although he is much too timid to perform for the residents of the home.
One day, Sullivan and his sister come across Master Melville’s Medicine Show, consisting of a troupe of youthful entertainers who make money shilling a product called “Hop-Hop Drops,” which are guaranteed to produce happiness in anyone who takes them. Sullivan doesn’t run away with this particular circus so much as get abducted by it. While his parents and sister presume him drowned, the young boy begins to hone his juggling skills as a member of Master Melville’s company.
Where many writers would be content to draw this scenario in broad strokes, Fagan opts for nuance. There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).
Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.
The book begins to falter only in its final stages. Sullivan’s sister and one of the Stardust Home residents, having become convinced the boy didn’t drown after all, embark on a search, but this ends anticlimactically. As for Sullivan himself, what might have been a dramatic moment of realization that alters his notion of what constitutes a family is undercut by the author’s decision to hedge his bets. The open-ended nature of the book’s conclusion sets up the promised sequel, but the desire to have things both ways – for Sullivan to find a place with the travelling show while still longing to escape back to his family – is somewhat disappointing.