Bestselling nonfiction author and journalist Beth Macy will read from her latest book, “Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South,” at 4:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 14, in Cochran Library at Sweet Briar College.
Macy’s first book about a Virginia furniture manufacturer won a Lukas Prize from the Columbia School of Journalism and quickly climbed The New York Times bestseller list. “Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local — and Helped Save an American Town” won praise for Macy’s reporting and storytelling.
Like “Factory Man,” “Truevine” is a Virginia story that Macy came across as a reporter for The Roanoke Times — one she says she heard about early in her career there and chased for 25 years. Truevine is a small farming community in Franklin County where around the turn of the 20th century, two albino African-American brothers were said to have been snatched from a tobacco field and made into a circus sideshow.
It was the “best story in town,” a colleague had told her, according to a review by Pulitzer-winning author Stacy Schiff on Macy’s website, but no one had been able to get it. Macy eventually befriended the grandniece of George and Willie Muse, who took care of the brothers in their retirement, and uncovered much of the story.
One detail she wasn’t able to settle, Macy told NPR’s Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” is the circumstances under which the brothers were taken by a traveling circus. They were later “sold” to other circus managers, winding up with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. For years, they were exploited as sideshow performers without pay.
However the initial act occurred, Macy is unequivocal in her admiration for the boys’ mother, Harriet Muse, whom she calls the hero of the story.
“George and Willie Muse really were kidnapped and made to perform in circus sideshows without pay decades while their mother worked, fought and schemed to get justice for her sons,” Macy says in a trailer for the book on her website.
As with “Factory Man,” the author’s skill as a reporter is reflected in the work, says Janet Maslin in a New York Times review.
“Ms. Macy, whose reportorial methods are inspiringly persistent (and whose books certainly bear that out), managed to piece together the legal aspects of Harriet’s case, even though the records of it were scarce and hard to find,” Maslin writes.
Schiff’s review lauds not only Macy’s investigative work in uncovering the story, but her compassion in telling it. Of the story that no one else had been able to get, Schiff writes, “[Macy] now has, with tenacity and sensitivity. She gives a singular sideshow its due, offering these ‘Ambassadors from Mars’ a remarkable, deeply affecting afterlife.”
“Truevine” also is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in nonfiction.
The reading is free and open to the public. For more information, email John Gregory Brown at email@example.com or call (434) 381-6434.