The story below is a preview from our September/October 2016 issue. For the full story Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
You talk for a few minutes with Beth Macy, as I have been lucky enough to do now and then over the pushing-20 years I have known her, and you come away with two feelings:
What a cheerful, charming, candid and deeply curious person.
And then, a little later: How did stuff I really don’t talk about much at all just sort of pour on out of me to her without the least hesitation?
Which is not a bad thing at all for a shy person talking about, say, a writing project.
But the much larger point is that the interplay of an interest you trust immediately and an answer you’re thus pleased to provide is key one to Macy’s long-time and award-winning success as a journalist and, more recently, her second-time and award-winning success as an author.
Key one being that people talk to Beth Macy. Even people who have refused to talk to anyone else about a particular topic. And refused, for many years, to talk to even Beth Macy about it.
From Chapter 1 to the last acknowledgment, Macy’s sincere, kind doggedness and its results provide the skeleton of her second book, “TRUEVINE. Two Brothers, A Kidnapping and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South,” due October 18 from Little, Brown.
Doggedness? Nancy Saunders, the primary source of information for that true story, was of the strong and years-held opinion that Ms. Macy was “just another white person stirring up shit.”
Which can be seen as a mild word for what this wide-ranging, disturbing, semi-picaresque book unpacks before us: the tangled tale of two African American albino brothers born in the tiny southeastern-Franklin County community of Truevine, and their pervasive, decades-long exploitation at the hands of “the predominant form of American entertainment between 1840 and 1940,” the traveling circus and sideshow industry. Which Macy characterizes as a “grift-filled enterprise that attracted adventurers and others drawn to society’s fringe,” “where children and disabled people were bartered like horses,” and with a business model that included professional pickpockets and short-change specialists.
In 1900, for example, there were 100 traveling circuses in the nation, all with a keen need for people who by virtue of their size or appearance or other physical oddity could pull paying customers into one of the circus’s signature draws, the freak show.
The “freaks” who are the focal point of Macy’s book likely became part of such a life in 1914, in their twenties and under still-mysterious circumstances (family legend has them beginning much earlier), having worked since single-digit ages as sharecroppers “from can see to can’t see,” (dawn to dusk) in the Franklin County foothills.
Macy’s relentless work to uncover the specifics of the brothers’ deeply exploited lives is key two to the book’s compelling nature: She has the compulsion to leave no stone alone—however heavy, however inaccessible, however repugnant what might be beneath it.
Many of those leads—the people to talk to, the sources to explore, the biased reporting of newspapers—lead to “the regional city hub about 30 miles from Truevine”: Roanoke. And in the context of pervasive racial injustice, Macy does not spare her long-time hometown, which was a bit of a “star” during the Jim Crow era of the book, with its thriving KKK chapter, its brutality and lynchings.
Key three is tied to the old adage that a writer writes. Macy does so, as always, as she speaks—elegantly and with thorough thought. Perhaps not least of the birthplace of her tale: “Driving into Truevine today, you still see hints of the hopelessness that hung over the tiny enclave a century before. Chestnut Mountain stands sentinel to the west, and farm plots give way to sagging trailers and tidy brick ranch houses. Joe-pye and pokeweeds wave along the roadside, and sagging tobacco-curing barns—most of the logs hand-chinked by Franklin County slaves and their descendants—are not Cracker Barrel postcard throwbacks; they’re a decaying nod to the cash crop that has long driven the economy of the region, most of it farmed on the backs of minority labor.”