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.