The year was 1899, as the old people told the story; the place a sweltering tobacco farm in Truevine, Virginia in the United States of America, the heart of the “Jim Crow” South where everybody the Muse brothers knew was either a former slave, or a child or grandchild of slaves.
George and Willie Muse were black albino brothers, just six and nine years old, but they worked in the fields from dawn to dark. Until a white man offered them candy and stole them away to become circus freaks. For the next twenty-eight years, their distraught mother struggled to get them back.
But were they really kidnapped? And how did their mother, a barely literate black woman in the segregated South, manage to bring them home? And why, after coming home, did they want to go back to the circus?
At the height of their fame, the Muse brothers performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They were global superstars in a pre-broadcast era. But the very root of their success was in the colour of their skin and in the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: supposed cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even ‘Ambassadors from Mars.’
This story line might sound like a work of fiction, but is the subject matter of a truly remarkable work of non-fiction, Truevine by Beth Macy. Macy writes about outsiders and underdogs, and she is the author of the New York Times bestseller Factory Man. Her work has appeared in national magazines and newspapers and has won more than a dozen national awards.
The path to writing Truevine is an astonishing example of extensive research, commitment and dogged determination. The book is the result of hundreds of interviews and decades of research.
“Harriet Muse has already been robbed of dignified work, of monetary pay, of basic human rights, all because of the colour of her skin. Now someone had come along and taken the only thing she had left, her children.”
“For more than a century, that was the story Willie Muse and his relatives told. Their descendants had heard it, all of them, since the age of comprehension, then handed it down themselves, the way families do, stamping the memory with a kind of shared notarization. The story was practically seared into the Muse family DNA.”
“And although it wasn’t entirely accurate, not to the letter, the spirit of it certainly was. The truth was actually far more surprising and, as it usually is, far more tangled.”
There is much in Truevine that will resonate with its South African readers.
Those who saw the film, “The Greatest Showman”, will have a good background to the parts of the book that deal with PT Barnum collection of oddities, the side show era and the times in which the Muse story takes place.
Racism and assault on human dignity and rights permeate much of the early narrative. And even today here in South Africa, people living with Albinism often face discrimination and ridicule.
Beth Macy was forced to play detective with finding the “truth” as it came together, piece by piece. The task started when, thirty years ago, she learned about the Muses when she began worked at the Roanoke Times in Virginia. She was told that it was “the best story in town” but that no one had been able to get the complete story due to the protectiveness of the Muse family. She wrote a series of news articles about the two brothers died in 2001 and many years later, revisited the story and developed it further until Truevine was the result.
Beth Mace reveals that driving into Truevine today, you will 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. They are 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 labour.
But year after year, the past grows fainter. From slavery to segregation, from integration to globalisation, the economic history of the American South intersects in these unincorporated crossroads. Truevine is a speck of land where slaves and their descendants became sharecroppers, then sewing machine operators, then unemployed workers, finally, those who could afford to, fled…
The process of writing the book is as engrossing a read as is the Muse narrative itself. After so many decades, the extraordinary story of what really happened to the brothers has been told for the first time.
The brothers never married and retired in 1961 and lived the rest of their lives in Roanoke, Virginia. George, the oldest of the Muse brothers died in 1971 and Willie lived until the remarkable age of 108, passing away in 2001.
Mace relates that: “More than a decade later, mourners are still talking about the burial of Willie Muse, and not just because of the wind or the snow but mainly because of what happened next. The nurse, Diane Rhodes said that it had been so warm that morning and then so cold. And then, just like that, a rainbow appeared and everyone just stood there stunned. ‘And we were all of one accord. Heaven was opening the gates to welcome Uncle Willie home.’”
As can be expected, there are holes in the narrative, unable to be filled, but Beth Macy’s achievement is an outstanding one.
Truevine is written with great style, compassion and sensitivity. Some remarkable old photographs provide a vivid visual reminder of the Muse Brothers themselves and an era long past. The book is rich in detail and works on so many levels and I for one, will certainly enjoy giving this quite remarkable book a second read.