“The Circus in Winter,” and a rant about Indiana

5 Jan

When I attended orientation at Ball State University, way back in 2007, I roomed for a night in a dorm room with a girl from Peru, Indiana.  She told me it was a circus town, and that she did some sort of crazy, death-defying circusy thing that I can’t remember (I think it was trapeze) y’know, just as a hobby.  I probably told her something amazingly sarcastic, like, “Oh, yeah, I like sticking my head in the mouths of lions, y’know, just for fun,” because I am an asshole.

Just a few weeks ago, over winter break, I picked up The Circus in Winter, by Cathy Day, at the library.  Cathy Day has just recently joined the Ball State faculty as a creative writing professor, and I knew that there was also an ongoing project in the Virginia Ball Center to turn the book into a musical.  As a lover of all things musical (and I mean that in the nerdy Broadway sense), and as someone who wanted to start reading works from Ball State professors (it’s my senior year, I should probably get on that), I had to read it.  And bonus points to the book because it’s actually a series of connected short stories (a la Winesburg, Ohio), which, wouldn’t you know, is a format I adore.

What’s more, it takes place in the mythical Lima, Indiana (which is just Peru, Indiana in disguise).  It’s a circus town, just like Peru, but even with the fantastical element that elephants and clowns and trapeze artists bring to the town, there’s still something so distinctly “Indiana” about it (and Lordy Jesus, would I ever know what that’s like).

Years of relentless television watching have led me to an intense appreciation for artists who can create characters well, and Cathy Day does more than that.  She creates whole families of characters, and as the reader follows along the branches of these family trees, they pick up on character traits and personalities and dreams and even objects that are handed down from person to person.  It reads so much like a novel, because every story is so intricately twisted and woven together, but looking back, I can’t really think of one “story” that wouldn’t be just fine standing alone.

There are no heroes in this book, no one person (or animal) I can pinpoint as the protagonist.  There’s not even a person I could single out as being decidedly “good.”  While many of them live the lives of circus heroes during the warmer months, during winter, while they stew in Indiana, their darker, more human tendencies come to light.  As the circus dies and the circus stars follow suit, a new generation of Lima residents are profiled, but the spirit of the circus still permeates the town.

While I’ve been leaning more towards creative non-fiction in my own writing lately, I think this book gave me a renewed interest in short fiction.  I am newly intrigued by the escapism that comes in not only reading fiction, but writing it (after I finished The Circus in Winter, I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, another book of short stories which I HIGHLY recommend and will probably write about later).  The idea of turning my analytical, writer’s eyes away from my own psyche and delving into the mind of someone else, someone of my own creation, seems a soothing prospect, and I’m excited to write now.


I’d probably kick myself if I wrapped this up without mentioning my very favorite passage from The Circus in Winter. “My mother once told me that if she had to draw a picture of loneliness and despair, it would be Indiana in winter:  a wash of gray, a stand of naked trees, and a line of electric poles disappearing into infinity.”  I loved this because it’s so spot-on.  If there’s a Hoosier out there who never experienced a day of utter despair during an Indiana winter, then they are my hero.

All of this business about Indiana got me thinking.  In the book, it’s treated as both a fairly nice place and a place that people want to get away from.  Let’s just say I identify with the latter.  I remember a few months ago, one of my favorite authors (and Ball State graduate) Haven Kimmel came to speak at school, and our creative nonfiction class got to attend a special talk she gave.  She wrote the memoirs, A Girl Named Zippy and She Got Up Off the Couch, both of which are about her childhood in Indiana.  During the talk, she told us about how much she liked Indiana, how much she missed it, how inspiring it is with its old abandoned barns and the people and all these things I know about Indiana, but just can’t appreciate.  I thought, Am I missing something?  Will I end up missing Indiana and appreciating it after I leave? And I couldn’t fathom that I would.  I know there are some aspects of Indiana that have made me who I am and the stink of Hoosier will never completely be gone from me (I suspect I’ll always feel inclined to listen to John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” or “Little Pink Houses” when they come on the radio).  But that passage from The Circus in Winter, because it was so accurate and well-articulated, made me realize just how miserable this place is in comparison to other places on Earth.  Granted, it’s no Arizona.  But it’s still about as depressing (and sometimes just as bleak and colorless) as an Ingmar Bergman film.

But still, there’s this undeniable aura about the state.  Once you’re a Hoosier, you’re a Hoosier for life.  It’s part of your identity.  I suspect I’ll have to “come out” Hoosier at various points in my life, when I’m away from the state and someone asks me, “Where’s your accent from?”  And that’s one of the things I loved about Cathy Day’s approach to Indiana in the book.  She gets just how singular it is here.  In a more universal sense, I suppose it means you should appreciate your hometown, your home state, but that doesn’t mean you should force yourself to stick around.


8 Responses to ““The Circus in Winter,” and a rant about Indiana”

  1. Steven January 6, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    When Kimmel was talking to our class about appreciating Indiana, I momentarily bought into it. But then that moment passed, and I like most people, still wanted to get out of here at one point.

    I’m glad I grew up here, though. Don’t get me wrong about that. A lot of the ugliness and politics and trains of thought helped mold my own, which I appreciate. I have wondered if I would have ended up caring about the things I care about if I had lived somewhere more progressive, more colorful. So, in that aspect I suppose I’m thankful.

    Good blog, thanks for sharing.

    PS: You guys are awesome. This was a wonderful idea and I’m glad I accidentally stumbled upon it through Facebook.

    • leeraloo January 6, 2011 at 12:11 am #

      I’m glad I wasn’t the only one feeling that. It was like, “Wait, are we talking about the same Indiana here?” But I don’t regret the fact that I grew up here either, because encountering ignorance so often can make someone more resolute in their opinions, and I think I benefitted from that.

  2. A. Leahy January 6, 2011 at 1:10 am #

    We are shaped by where we’ve been. Cathy Day’s book is
    wonderful, and I’ve shared it with my creative writing students
    too. As a Midwesterner now in California, I appreciated your post a
    great deal.

  3. elysiasmith January 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm #

    I am opposite in the idea that I moved here from California when I was thirteen. But I still consider myself a Hoosier. It’s like the term grabbed me and I can’t shake it. Though, sometimes I don’t mind. People don’t expect me to be tan and look like a movie star when I say I’m from Indiana.

  4. lindseyplaval January 7, 2011 at 12:47 am #


    (You guys, I kind of love Indiana a lot. But I see what you’re saying. I do. Especially in the winter.)

    • leeraloo January 7, 2011 at 2:15 am #

      READ IT. Also, for the love of god, let me borrow “Dark Room.” If I don’t read it soon, I’m going to implode.

      Also, ask me in the spring, then I say I like Indiana. But winter… I hate it. Also, I still want to leave. Plus, as much as I bemoan my stupid southern accent, I’m hoping that I’ll end up moving away and people will find my hick voice charming and cute.

  5. amhines January 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm #

    I want to read this as well. Also, I read “Darkroom” over break, and man oh man was it good. You’ll both love it.

    Lora, your voice is already cute and charming, and it doesn’t sound hick. CAUSE YOU’RE JUST SO CUTE AND CHARMING IN GENERAL.


  1. Sleepovers, Skating, and Readings HOT DAMN! « Chick Litz - January 15, 2011

    […] done!) we’re more familiar with her first book “The Circus in Winter” which Lora blogged about recently. Another reward for our early-morning goodness? We got to see Jill Christman! We love her. Talking […]

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