Ellen Marie Wiseman made a splash in 2014 with her very successful second novel, What She Left Behind, which traced the lives of Izzy, a girl raised in foster care, and Clara, a flapper girl who was institutionalized for refusing to obey her controlling father. It sold half a million copies and continues to find new readers in the U.S. and abroad, where rights have sold in 16 territories.
In her new novel, The Life She Was Given, Wiseman once again weaves together the stories of two 20th century women, and Kensington is excited for her growing legions of fans to experience this enthralling read. The Life She Was Given follows Lilly Blackwood, a young albino girl kept in a secret attic room all her life until she is sold to a traveling circus freak show, and Julia Blackwood, who, two decades later, returns to the family horse farm after the deaths of her estranged parents and discovers that attic room and the dark history hidden there.
Wiseman says What She Left Behind spoke to so many readers because "asylums have always fascinated a lot of people, and reading about the disturbing things that happened within their walls is a safe way to satisfy their curiosity about the different, frightening, and unknown." The new novel answers a similar curiosity, in Wiseman's view: "The Life She Was Given lets readers discover what it might have been like to be hidden away in an attic bedroom, with an in-depth look behind the lurid curtain of circus life." To recreate Lilly's world, Wiseman did deep research: "there were plenty of things to investigate, like circus slang, the different kinds of sideshow performers, animal tricks and training, elephant behaviors and noises, circus superstitions, and the proper names for the parts of a big top," she says.
"At a freak show," notes Wiseman, "it's okay for people to stare at something they think they shouldn't. They don't have to, and actually aren't supposed to, look away, even if something frightens them." But, Wiseman points out, freak shows weren't exactly as we might expect. "In the heyday of the sideshow, human curiosities were respected as the bread and butter of the circus, and revered all over the world. In many cases, the freaks were treated like royalty, not victims or monsters," she says, though, "certainly there was exploitation."
The book also takes a compassionate look at the plight of circus animals. Wiseman has always loved animals, and The Life She Was Given affords her the chance to deeply explore the ways animals are treated—and mistreated—by humans. She includes a reimagining of the true story of Mary the elephant, who was hanged in 1916 from a train-mounted crane for killing a handler who had prodded near her infected tooth. "I was shocked and heartbroken by her story and wanted to include it because I'm passionate about the humane treatment of animals," says Wiseman. "We can't be mad at animals for acting like animals," she continues, "especially when we're the ones who put them in positions where they feel the need to defend themselves. We're shocked when we read about children being locked up and beaten, but we do it to animals all the time and don't understand when they fight back." In the novel, this makes for obvious parallels with mistreatment of humans—Lilly develops a deep connection with the animals, who in turn shed light on who she is.
Kensington is excited to share The Life She Was Given with advance readers. Print or digital ARCs can be requested through Vida Engstrand at Kensington Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org). Wiseman will also be signing ARCs at BookExpo in the Autographing Area, table 15 on Thursday, June 4 at 10:30 a.m., as well as at the Kensington booth, #1924, during BookCon.