Beth Macy, the author of the New York Times bestseller Factory Man, is known for writing about marginalized people and outsiders. Her latest book, Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest—A True Story of the Jim Crow South (Little, Brown, Oct.), is once again about a family of underdogs that overcame extraordinary odds at great risk.
In 1989, Macy, then a feature writer for the Roanoke (Va.) Times, heard about “the greatest untold story in town,” a story “so crazy, many people didn’t believe it at first, black or white.” Two albino African-American brothers, ages six and nine, had disappeared in 1899 from Truevine, a tiny crossroads in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Their mother, an illiterate black maid, never stopped searching for them and, in 1927, finally found them at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They’d been kidnapped by a circus bounty hunter looking for people who could be transformed into sideshow attractions, and over the years, the brothers were sold from manager to manager and circus to circus. They became global superstars, performing at Buckingham Palace and headlining at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The mother, who Macy calls “the hero of the book,” demanded and eventually won their freedom from a circus management that considered them “property.”
The story, Macy soon found, was untold for a reason. When she asked to interview Willie Muse, the surviving brother, his great-niece, Nancy Sanders, turned her down flat. “He’s been exploited his whole life. He’s resting,” she said. In 2001, after Muse’s death at 108, Sanders finally allowed Macy to co-write a newspaper series about her uncles. But it wasn’t until 2013 that Macy was given Sanders’s blessing to write the book. “Nancy told me to remember the brothers came out on top. They had a happy retirement and went from being a cautionary tale (be careful, you might be kidnapped!) to cherished elders in the community.”
Macy was “shocked by how this family was treated by the white establishment, including the white media” and hopes Truevine will not only give readers a greater understanding of what life was like during the Jim Crow era but peel back the layers of why things are still so tense between African-Americans and whites.
Macy will be signing ARCs today, 3–3:30 p.m., at Table 7, in the Autographing Area.
This article appeared in the May 12, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.