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

by Charles Wilkins

Published by McClelland and Stewart

269 pages, 1998









Rubbernecking at the Big Top

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

It's not a 90s book. The Circus at the Edge of the Earth by Charles Wilkins is riveting in the way that a nasty car accident can grab your attention: you stop and look and even crane while every fiber in your being is telling you to keep moving. That's not to say that it isn't well written. It is. But this seems to just add to the accident-watching feeling. Competent though not moving prose marches us through Wilkins' 3000-kilometer central Canadian mid-life jaunt with the Wallenda Circus.

In explaining his desire to run away and join the circus, Wilkins comes as close to poetry as he ever does in this work:

For the past three months, I had occupied my desk in much the way a dead man occupies a box -- without sense, without humor, and, most certainly, without plans. My activities as a writer had been all but swallowed up in a kind of personalized version of the big black smudge that the French call la grande noirceur.

What better cure, you might well ask, for la grande noirceur than to do what countless children have wanted to do for as long as there has been a circus for them to want to run to. Wilkins asked Rick Wallenda -- "scion of the most famous performing family in the history of the American circus," according to Wilkins -- for permission to travel with the circus in order to write about it. Almost to his surprise, Wallenda agreed.

What follows is an intimate look backstage of the ring in what is one of the better known circuses left in North America. Near the end of the book, Wilkins is told by elephant trainer Bobby Gibbs, "Don't sugar coat it! Tell it like it is." Wilkins appears to have done just that. If that straight-on approach makes it at times uncomfortable to look at, so be it. We learn a lot about the circus -- perhaps more than desired -- and learn as well that a lot of the stereotypes and the things we've always sort of believed about circuses and circus people are true.

It is confirmed, for instance, that circus people are a breed apart. The nomadic lifestyle that comes at this periphery of show business demands that. In spite of this rootlessness -- or perhaps because of it -- circus families like the Wallendas are not uncommon.

The animal facts perhaps touched me most deeply in The Circus at the Edge of the Earth. I had always thought, or perhaps hoped, that the hollering of animal activists on behalf of circus animals was unfounded. That circus animals, like many of their barnyard counterparts, were well-adjusted and happy beasts: pleased to be part of human routine and under human care. The Circus at the Edge of the Earth puts the lie to this, however. While Wilkins obviously grew to care for and admire the circus performers he traveled with while compiling the material for this book, there is no way to "sugar coat" the reality of the lives of circus animals without eliminating their mention entirely, which he does not do. In fact, a goodly portion of the book is devoted to the animals and their handlers and the result took my breath away.

It's not that the handlers are depicted mistreating the animals, per se. It is the mere interaction with them in the context of doing tricks that offends; especially the big cats. The Wallenda's tiger handler Wilson Barnes is quoted at length about his interaction with his "cats" and his affection for them is obvious, but it is a wary affection because the tigers make it plain most of the time they'd rather be doing something -- anything! -- else.

With the tigers down during a performance in Lawrence, Kansas, he turned to receive the audience's applause, taking his eyes off the cats just long enough for an aging male -- "a real nice tiger" -- to rise, step forward, and put its teeth through the calf of his leg. "He hung on like it was the last meal he was ever gonna get," Wilson said in a voice verging on nostalgia. "I knew if I went down, I was finished -- he'd have been all over me. So I dropped my whip, concentrated my strength, and hit him in the face with my fist -- and I'll tell ya, it was fully loaded. I guess it surprised him, because he let go and just looked at me, as if he were gonna cry, and I was able to get the bunch of them back on their seats."

The Circus at the Edge of the Earth is a story well told. A fascinating look behind the scenes to a place we're not sure we ever wanted to see. | January 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, is published by St. Martin's Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books.