Friday, February 09, 2024

Long Road to the Circus, by Betsy Bird (ill by David Small)

No one ever truly leaves Burr Oak, Michigan, but twelve year-old Suzy means to make a good try of it.  She has a great role model in the form of an eccentric retired circus performer, the mysterious Madame Marantette.  Madame left Burr Oak and, while she returned after retiring, Suzy figures she knows a thing or two about how to see the world.  However, she has to figure out a way to ask the woman.

Suzy's opportunity comes when she notices that her uncle keeps slipping away early in the morning.  Suzy sneaks out of the house and follows him all the way to Madame's house.  Uncle Fred, it turns out, has been helping train Madame's horses and taking care of a flock of ostriches that she owns.  Suzy's never seen an ostrich before but soon she's smitten by them.  Gaucho, the feistiest bird in the flock, is being trained to pull a surrey alongside a horse.  It's an impossible task and Fred has been struggling. Suzy insists on helping him by learning to ride Gaucho for herself!

Suzy knows plenty about horses, but ostriches are an entirely different thing.  And with a lot of trial and a lot more error, Suzy steadfastly pursues her task with the hopes that if she can master Gaucho she could earn a ticket to join the circus and leave Burr Oak.

Set in the 1920s, this charming story features lots of humor and plenty of adventure.  It also is an unusually innocent book.  Aside from breaking some family rules (and being punished for doing so), there's hardly anything for even the most anxious parent to object to. Suzy's family may strike modern children as being overly strict, but Suzy is clever and knows how to bend the rules to get what she wants in the end.

Suzy is also not much of an intellectual, but instead relies on a lot of horse sense and instinct, and just stubbornly holding on to what she wants.  One of the lessons she learns in this book is that sometimes you do have to let go and having the wisdom to know when is a big part of growing up.  Charming illustrations enliven the text and a fascinating appendix describes the real people who inspired the story.

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