Desert Isle Keeper
The Life She Was Given
I don’t have nearly enough words to express my love for this latest novel by Ellen Marie Wiseman.The Life She Was Given, is a dark, brutal portrayal of family life, with a few glimmers of hope shining through when the reader least expects it. It’s a book I sped through and then wished I had taken more slowly so as to savor the gorgeous writing, engaging characters, and richly imagined plot.
It’s the summer of 1931, and young Lilly Blackwood spies circus lights from the window of her attic bedroom. She’s never set foot outside her room, and only recognizes the circus because of the pictures she’s seen in books brought to her by her guilt-ridden father. She longs to see the circus, but is sure her parents will not permit her to do so. After all, her mother tells her almost daily how frightened people in the outside world would be if they caught even the most fleeting of glimpses of her. But then, much to Lilly’s surprise, her mother enters the room late at night and whisks Lilly outside for what the child believes is a private showing of some of the circus’s acts, but Lilly’s mother has other, much more sinister ideas. Lilly is sold to the circus sideshow. She’s thrust into what she believes is just another prison, one populated with countless strangers.
At first, Lilly isn’t sure what to make of her new life. She wonders why she’s been sent away from home and cries herself to sleep at night, hoping her father will come and save her. But Lilly is quite resilient, and, over the coming months, she makes a place for herself in the Barlow Brothers traveling circus. She’s one of the sideshow’s greatest attractions, and she finally comes to the realization that her albino appearance is not the curse her mother always claimed it to be.
Lilly also discovers she has a great affinity for animals, especially elephants. She befriends Cole, the young son of the chief elephant trainer, and forms a bond with mother elephant Pepper and her calf Jojo. Circus life can be quite brutal, and there are times when Lilly longs for something more. She detests the gawking, jeering crowds and the cruel circus overseers. Cole knows Lilly is capable of so much more than she’s allowed to do, and together, they come up with a plan they hope will get Lilly out of the sideshow forever.
Over twenty years later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood returns home to her family’s estate after an absence of nearly three years. Home was never a happy place for her; her mother was overly strict, and her father seemed to care about nothing save his horses and his whisky, so Julia ran away. Now though, her parents are dead and the Blackwood estate and its prosperous horse farm have been left to Julia, who isn’t certain what to do with any of it. At first, she plans to sell it, but, after getting to know the horses, the cranky farm manager, and the exceedingly handsome veterinarian who cares for them, she begins to think she might be able to keep the farm going after all.
As Julia goes through her parents’ possessions, she stumbles upon several clues to what seems to be a long-buried family secret. Who slept in the well-hidden attic bedroom, and what reason could her father possibly have for saving numerous newspaper clippings dealing with a traveling circus in the 1930’s?
Ellen Marie Wiseman tells a fascinating story of two very different women with a hidden connection. The focus switches seamlessly between Lilly and Julia, bringing both periods of American history to life very vividly and I felt sorry for both women, neither of whom feels she belongs in the life she was born into. Both are incredibly courageous and daring, though these traits manifest in each woman very differently. Lilly endures some horrific abuse at the hands of the men in charge of the circus, and Julia is forced to come to terms with a secret that will shatter everything she thought she knew about her family and herself. Still, neither of our heroines gives up in the face of overwhelming adversity; each strives to come out on top of circumstances that sometimes seem insurmountable.
If you’re looking for a light beach read, The Life She Was Given isn’t the book for you. I cried several times while reading, and I had to take some pretty deep breaths as I read through some horrifying scenes of cruelty toward both animals and marginalized human beings. Ms. Wiseman’s writing is both stark and evocative, making me feel almost as if I was living through the experiences of our heroines. But don’t think this book is a total downer – in fact, it’s anything but that. The author pays tribute to the ability of the human spirit to keep on living, hoping and loving even when life seems bent on keeping a person down.
Fans of Water for Elephants, The Tumbling Turner Sisters, and The Orphan’s Tale should definitely give this book a try. It’s obvious the author did a great deal of research into both the glamorous and the seedy aspects of life lived on a circus train. She doesn’t shy away from the brutality, but neither does she short-change the camaraderie and love the performers feel for one another. This truly is well-written historical fiction at its best.