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The Circus at the Edge of the Earth: Travels with the Great Wallenda Circus

by Charles Wilkins

Running Away to Sea: Around the World on a Tramp Freighter

by Douglas Fetherling

The only notion I ever had of running away from home was when (somewhere around the age of seven) I soberly considered fleeing home for the bakery at the end of my street. It’s an honourable tradition, the one where you leave it all behind to chase a dream, and I was ready to join up. But only briefly, it turned out: I forwent a life among breadstuffs and stayed home. I am remembered, perhaps, as an underambitious child. But then maybe I was just a late bloomer, because in recent times I’ve entertained all kinds of urges to get out of town, to make like they used to in adventure books for boys, to get me to the French Foreign Legion, the Crusades, the circus, the sea.

Any of which, I guess, I could apply to any time – all except the Crusades, I think. The Foreign Legion will send a prospectus if you write them; as for the circus and the sea, you can look to two new Canadian books for inspiration.

In the fall of 1996, the critic, biographer, memoirist Douglas Fetherling took ship near London, England. For the next 100-odd days he would be a passenger aboard the Pride of Great Yarmouth, a British-owned cargo ship bound for tropical waters. Bogged “in a quagmire of marital and professional problems,” Fetherling decided to trade his home in Toronto for a berth shipboard.

He had in mind a specific ideal – he wanted a place on “the kind of freighter that Joseph Conrad was forever writing about on terms of such easy familiarity.” A “tramp freighter,” that is, one of the dying breed of smaller merchant ships that follows a particular route trusting that cargo can be picked up along the way. In days of yore, Fetherling notes, the nomenclature had a happier connotation, “suggesting the seaborne equivalent of tramping through the fens and dales without a worry in the world.” Nowadays, “the meaning is closer to hobo or derelict” – container shipping and air freight reign supreme, and tramping survives “only in out-of-the-way places on the ragged edges of international commerce.”

Across the Atlantic the Yarmouth went, through Panama’s canal, on to Polynesia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and sundry other Pacific ports of call, before plying a route back through the Suez Canal to European waters. Along the way, Fetherling is a learned and often absorbing companion. He offers brisk disquisitions on everything from the commerce of copra (the name given the dried, broken shells of coconuts, the oils of which are used in cosmetics and cooking) to the dangers of malaria and modern-day pirates.

He’s a helpful guide to the literature of travellers who have gone before him, readily evoking the perceptive likes of Robert Louis Stevenson and George Woodcock. Fetherling also has a telling eye for detail and a delightfully dry wit. For instance, he tells of U.S. Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy stopping during the Second World War on the island of Espirítu Santo. Could the shock of coming straight from college to the freedom of the South Pacific, Fetherling wryly wonders, have caused the “satyriasis and moral complaints from which he suffered in later times”?

But for all the learning and detail and wit that buoys Running Away to Sea, somehow Fetherling’s heart just doesn’t seem to be in it. He admits early that in running away he was seeking solitude. Of course he’s entitled to every bit he wants, but it doesn’t bode well for his readers, and in the end, his detachment is the book’s downfall. Acute observer though he is, Fetherling never gets inside the workings of the Yarmouth and its crew. At times he seems to be intent on plumbing the ship’s personalities and the politics – as thoroughly, say, as John McPhee did when he went to sea in Looking for a Ship. But he’s never able – or willing – to engage members of the crew or their stories to any depth.

When it comes to Fetherling’s fellow passengers, a company of “adventuresome business people, holiday-makers, retirees,” he plays them for comical relief or just plain shies away. Stopped in Singapore, he largely defers in his descriptions to a couple of British writers who spent time there in the 1930s. Later, in the Suez, he catches sight of Somalia. “Poor Somalia,” he dutifully offers, “first the war, then the famine, and now devastating floods. All the while, the warlords were in Egypt, yet again dividing up the spoils. One more day and we were in the Red Sea off Yemen…” As the end of Fetherling’s journey draws nearer, it’s as if you can see his interest in the whole enterprise drifting away into the salt-mist.

In early 1997, Charles Wilkins was at home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when he decided he’d run away with the circus. Yes, it’s true, he was fulfilling a childhood dream in mid-life by seeking out “a little risk and excitement,” but there was a practical end to it, too: Wilkins was in the grip of a heavy-fisted writing funk.

The Circus at the Edge of the Earth: Travels with the Great Wallenda Circus is, of course, the evidence that he slipped the funk. It’s a fine, fascinating book, what’s more. The author previously of books about retired hockey players (he also worked with Don Starkell on Paddle to the Amazon), Wilkins takes us on a marvellous tour of the lore, history, and artifice of the circus. He goes deeper, too, into the strange insularity of what Edward Hoagland called the “nationhood” of circuses. Wilkins made friends and won confidences, and as a result he’s able to offer a trenchant inquiry into the risks and realities of a business (waning but still proud) as met in some of the remarkable members of the modern-day Great Wallenda Circus.

Along with Barnum & Bailey and Ringling, Wallenda is one of the great North American circus names. In this case, it’s personified in Ricky Wallenda, scion of a circus dynasty that started seven generations back when Bohemia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Ricky’s show was on the road through Manitoba and Northern Ontario when Wilkins hooked up with it; it included an elephant act, tigers, bicycle daredevils, a sword-balancer, trapeze artists, a hula-hoop routine, a rola-bola number, a fire juggler known as El Flamo, and a woman who hung by her hair.

Wilkins got to know many of the performers, but the most compelling portrayals in the book are of two men who move in large part out of the spotlight. In Ricky Wallenda, Wilkins finds all the triumph, the tragedy, and the tough survivalism of circus life contained in one broken body. Grandson of the legendary wire-walker Karl Wallenda, Ricky himself walked on high until a near-fatal fall powdered the bones in his heels. Now he runs the place, which a lot of the time seems to be almost as painful. Trucks break down, elephants ail, rivals threaten, animal rights activists protest, and, increasingly, audiences find other things to do with their time and dollars; somehow, Wallenda and his circus keep on going.

But the book’s star attraction is the elephant man, Bobby Gibbs, a 370-pound giant with 47 years of circus experience behind him. As a storyteller, scold, historian, and side-lot moralist, he’s almost too good to be true. From him we learn that elephants appreciate tobacco almost as much as they love good whiskey, that a mature elephant can offload upwards of 200 pounds of manure a day, and why certain elephants will never forget to stomp you to death if you slight them somehow.

It’s Bobby’s opinion that, as institutions go, the American circus has more to say about the meaning of American culture than any other, educational, religious, or governmental. “You could teach a kid more about physics and biology on a visit to the circus,” he declaims, “than you could in a month in the lab. We’re the New World in a nutshell. Frontier society. And besides that, we have humour – we’re survivors. Circus people are harder to kill than cockroaches.”

Reading The Circus at the Edge of the Earth, you’ll gladly take his word for it. If only I’d known about him earlier, it would have been circuses all the way. I don’t think I’d have given that bakery a second thought.