Truevine: Strange and Troubling Tale of Two Brothers in Jim Crow America

by Beth Macy

Hardcover, 2016




New York, NY : Little, Brown and Co., 2016.


Beth Macy, master chronicler of life in the South, combines exhaustive research, exclusive interviews and sources, and attention to detail in this riveting American story about race, greed, and a mother's love. George and Willie Muse from Truevine, Virginia were two little boys born in a brutal time, sharecropping a field in the segregated South, stolen away by a white man offering candy, and set on a path of events that would forever change their lives--and their family's destiny.-- A true story of two albino African-American brothers who were kidnapped and displayed as circus freaks, and whose mother endured a decades-long struggle to find them and to get justice for her family. The year was 1899, and the old people told the story: the place, a sweltering tobacco community in the Jim Crow South called Truevine, where everyone they knew was either a former slave or a child or grandchild of slaves. Though the narrative of George and Willie Muse has been passed down for over a century, no writer has ever gotten this close to the beating heart of their story and its mysteries: Were they really kidnapped and put into servitude by the circus? How did their mother, a black maid toiling under the harsh restrictions of segregation, bring them home? And why, after getting there, would they ever want to go back? At the height of their fame, the Muse brothers performed for British royalty and headlined more than a dozen sold-out shows at New York's Madison Square Garden. They were fine musicians and global superstars in a pre-broadcast era. But the very root of their success hinged on the color of their skin and on the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even 'Ambassadors from Mars." Beth Macy is a master chronicler of life in the South, and her exclusive interviews and sources make for a riveting American story about race, greed, and a mother's love. These were two little boys born in a brutal time, sharecropping a field in the segregated South, stolen away by a white man offering candy, and set on a path of events that would forever change their lives--and their family's destiny.--Adapted from dust jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
On a sweltering day, in a tobacco field, in Truevine, Virginia, a pair of albino brothers are kidnapped and taken away from home. It is 1899. They were told that their mother had died. It will take twenty-eight years before their mother finds them again. In this true story, we learn what happened to Willie and George Muse on that fateful day. How they were forced to perform as freaks, in a sideshow, in traveling circuses for nearly three decades and ended up being a major attraction in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
The author dug deep into this story, with a journalistic furor, interviewing descendants from the Muse family, similar to the approach of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. She explores many issues and events from the early 20th century, touching on poverty and the rampant racism that flourished in the south. It also documents the bravery and tenacity of the boy's mother, as she never gives up hope, for her lost sons. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member SABC
Two albino African-American brothers were stolen from tobacco fields of rural Vairginia in 1899. This is the story of their lives traveling with a circus and being part of a freak show attraction. For 28 years their mother, Harriett Muse tries to find them.......Enjoy reading about all of their struggles, failures and successes.
LibraryThing member dele2451
An interesting peek behind the curtains and into the practices of "The Greatest Show on Earth" and other traveling circuses/carnivals/roadshows of the late 19th/early 20th centuries. It is a shame the brothers did not get the opportunity to learn to write so they could have recorded more of their own thoughts on their lives, but I am glad Macy and the many researchers who assisted her found a way to bring more of their story to light. The historical photographs are a wonderful addition as well.… (more)
LibraryThing member akblanchard
Truevine is sort of like The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, but with sideshow performers rather than cancer cells. Albino African American brothers George and Willie Muse were born in the Jim Crow South. Their unusual looks (pale white skin with African facial features and dreadlocks) attracted the attention of an unscrupulous promoter, who either kidnapped or recruited them (accounts vary) to leave their home in Truevine, Virginia to travel around the country as circus freaks. They were billed as Eko and Iko, and it was claimed that they were wild men from exotic locations such as Madagascar or Ecuador, or even ambassadors from Mars. The brothers were talented musicians, but they often worked without meaningful pay and were forbidden to speak on stage except for gibberish, leading many to believe that the were cognitively impaired (they weren't). For years they were not permitted to return home even during the off season. In the book's most dramatic scene, George and Willie's washerwoman mother stood up to the "circus men" and racist townspeople to get her sons back.

All this sounds like a great premise for creative nonfiction, but the whole thing falls apart in the execution. The written documentation on George and Willie is meager, so author Beth Macy fills in the tale with long digressions, including a lot of Truevine and freak show history and details about people who remember when George and Willie were alive. Some of this material is interesting, but there is way too much of it, and it interferes with the dramatic arc of the story. I found this book disappointing.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
If there was a rating for truth in book promotion, I’m afraid "Truevine" would receive a low score. Readers expecting to be immersed in the saga of two brothers branded as “freaks” who were abducted and forced to become exhibits in a circus will likely be disappointed. This angle makes up a relatively small portion of a book that tries to tackle many (perhaps too many) topics involving the Jim Crow South. The fascinating story of the Muse brothers could have easily been recounted in a 25- or 30-page essay. True, Macy provides a thorough roadmap that documents her journalistic odyssey, an excursion that is probably a bit too dense for the average reader (although, as a journalist, I did find some of the insights and tactics interesting). The book's overall organization felt a bit disjointed. I must admit that I stopped reading "Truevine" midway through the narrative.… (more)
LibraryThing member loraineo
I enjoyed this book. A very descriptive true, sad story beginning with the kidnapping of 2 albino black boys,,Wilile and George Muse ,around 1899 in Truevine Virginia. The boys were displayed in the 'freaks', traveling the world. The story goes on to describe the years they were involved in the circus and their return home and then the eventual return to the circus and again eventually back to Truevine.. Lots of recent research with family and the various opinions as to much of the history . Interesting story, lots of unanswered questions.… (more)
LibraryThing member KimMeyer
I just did not care about this book. I finished Dopesick recently, by the same author, so I decided to read Truevine because I already owned it. Nope, it's competently written, but just not engaging.
LibraryThing member dandelionroots
If the Muse brothers' story of black sideshow freaks throughout the reign of circus entertainment (turn of to mid 20th century) had been an example supporting a larger freakshow narrative, it would be intriguing. Interesting facts obnoxiously repeated with awkward/confusing transitions. The subtitle is a fair indication of her writing ability.… (more)



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