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Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical

Review

Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical

edited by Deborah Noyes

While the term “freak” is casually tossed off these days as a minor insult, in the not-so-recent past it had stronger connotations. A freak was often someone with a strange habit or talent at best, and at worst the word was an insensitive and degrading pejorative hurled against someone differently abled or physically different. In SIDESHOW, 10 writers and writer-illustrators explore the oddity and attraction of freaks. Edited by Deborah Noyes, the short stories and short comics in this collection are intriguing, mysterious, clever, sometimes funny and always thoughtful. And a few are very good.

The first tale, “The Bearded Girl,” by Aimee Bender is one of the book’s best. It is the story of 13-year-old Molly for whom puberty means having grown a beard. Not peach-fuzz like some of the boys she knows, but a full beard that, when shaved in the morning, comes back in by the afternoon. Surprisingly, Molly likes the beard; it feels natural and comforting to her. However, it bothers her mother, who buys her an electric razor, and spooks her classmates, who take to calling her devilworm and ostracizing her. She is particularly tormented by one boy. But when after having left school to join the circus as a sideshow act he comes to see her and reveals a crazy secret, Molly must decide if she can forgive him for his cruelty and whether or not she believes what he shares.

“The Bearded Girl” is just as much a coming-of-age story as it is an exploration of freakishness. In less than 30 pages Bender successfully explores identity, puberty, difference and conformity, and parent-child relationships. Molly is an interesting and sympathetic character, and her story, along with that of her patient, enigmatic mother and the repentant young man are handled with sensitivity and intelligence.

Another excellent story in the collection is “The Bread Box” by Cecil Castellucci. Instead of dealing with the themes of sideshows and circuses as in several of the other tales, Castellucci's offering, a demented fairy tale of sorts, takes place in the strange house of a spinster aunt who is guarding a living family heirloom. Sofia, the narrator of the story, is staying with her Great-Aunt Eden while her parents are in Jamaica trying to save their marriage. Great-Aunt Eden is somber and her house full of strange trinkets. The two don’t have anything in common and have nothing to do together until they decide to bake some homemade bread.

Great-Aunt Eden then shares with Sofia the secret to the bread's goodness: a starter that has been kept alive by the family since 1846. Expecting to see the usual yeast, Sofia is shocked to find that the starter is a worm-like creature living in the bread box. Abused by Eden, it nevertheless sheds parts of itself in exchange for trinkets and then gives gifts of its own. As Great-Aunt Eden's abuse gets worse and Sofia learns more about the starter, she has to decide what to do with this bizarre family legacy. Creepy and surreal, “The Bread Box” is totally unique and thoroughly enjoyable.

David Almond's contribution, “When God Came to Kathleen's Garden,” is a lovely look at childhood faith and an encounter with the mystical. Other stories are more firmly rooted in the traditional idea of a circus or travelling sideshow, presenting psychics, shapeshifters, fortune-tellers, magical puppeteers, horrible creatures, ancient performances, little people, fat ladies and more. “Jargo!” by Matt Phelan is a short comic recounting the tale of a Jargo act: two men dressed in an animal costume, in this case a giraffe. But, of course, this Jargo is different as readers discover when he is confronted by an angry clown. It is a powerful and imaginative contribution.

Death, puberty, sexuality, fear, acceptance, miracles and loss are all explored in SIDESHOW. At turns optimistic and cynical, it is an entertaining and weird collection of stories, most of which will stay with readers beyond their scant pages.

Reviewed by Sarah?Rachel Egelman on July 14, 2009

Sideshow: Ten Original Tales of Freaks, Illusionists and Other Matters Odd and Magical
edited by Deborah Noyes

  • Publication Date: July 14, 2009
  • Genres: Anthology, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Candlewick
  • ISBN-10: 0763637521
  • ISBN-13: 9780763637521