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Book Review: Kicking Sawdust by Clayton Anderson

Tanya and Raul. This is Tanya the elephant and Raul her caretaker. In the mornings before showtime Raul would walk her out to a tree in the middle of a nearby field to snack on some fresh leaves.

Thinking of the circus automatically makes me feel sawdust, smell the odour of animals and imagine people who are constantly on the road. In my youth, the ones travelling with the circus did spell freedom and independence for me – a romantic myth, of course.

This book, however, “doesn’t try to paint a nostalgic fantasy, or conjure up romantic myths of escapism and otherness, but captures instead the true heart and day-to-day work of the showman’s life, in an era that is often overlooked in the grand narratives of circus and fairground entertainment,” author and historian Katharine Kavanagh writes in her foreword.

Apart from the fact that photography and a “true heart” do not really match – photography concerns itself solely with the surface, all else is interpretation – I think Katharine’s foreword is illuminating for she makes the reader familiar with the wider context of the circus. While there were plenty of publications that document circus and fairground entertainment at the beginning of the twentieth century, they seem to have largely disappeared from the forefront of people’s imagination. Yet the traveling art forms were not dying. “In fact, they were doing what the always have – adapting and evolving.”

The Fabulous Darnells. This poodle act was called “The Fabulous Darnells”, three sisters who look remarkably alike.

When photographer Clayton Anderson was 19 years old, he lived near the water in Miami Beach and was waiting tables and hanging out with friends, among them Jack Pierson who contributed the introduction to this tome. One day, Clayton’s dad called and “asked that he come help his family by working a cinnamon roll concession his father operated in a traveling carnival.” Jack Pierson, an art school dropout in search of “his voice,” was enthusiastic – “What an opportunity!” he thought. Clayton, however, couldn’t believe his misfortune for what could be better than the fancy-free beach life that he was enjoying. Yet: “Buy a camera and please takes pictures,” Pierson insisted and added: “I’m great at ideas for other people and my new friend was the first to ever take one.”

The 75 black and white photographs in this book were taken between 1988 and 1992 (according to Pierson, however, they were taken thirty-seven years ago) and show mainly posing humans, male and female, but also a python, a dog act, a carousel, a double Ferris wheel … Looking at these pics, makes one also wonder how the world has changed. Are they still showing today the “World’s Smallest Woman”? And, given that almost every second banker nowadays sports a tattoo, is “Tatooed Lady Lorrette” still considered an attraction?

Lorette the Tattoed Lady.
This is Lorette, the tattooed lady. My stepmother Sharon and she would do their laundry together at a local Laundromat. Lorette would wear long pants and a long-sleeved sweatshirt that completely covered her tattoos. It would transform her into a just another sweet grandmother doing her laundry like everyone else.


The Human Torch.
This is “The Human Torch.” He would light himself on fire and then dive into a pool of water below him.

A Conversation with Dominique Jando and Tessa Fontaine completes the book. Tessa Fontaine teaches creative writing, Dominique Jando has been involved in the performing arts for more than five decades. I loved how Tessa, who published a book called “The Electric Woman” in 2018, introduced herself: “I have a whole host of skills that don’t translate super well right now to teaching in college, like fire eating and snake charming and sword swallowing and knife throwing and all of that.” Dominique, who describes himself as a clown, points out that the circus world is a family. What attracts him to the circus is that “its not a bullshit world. When you do a somersault, you do a somersault. You are not pretending that you are able to do a somersault. And it’s the same with the classical ballet. When you are a great dancer, you are a great dancer, you don’t have to pretend you are. Everybody knows it. It’s the same in the circus.”

With his in mind, I look at these pics in a new light. Not just with the sympathy I have for people who decided to live on the fringes of society but with the respect I have for people who are masters of their craft.

Kicking Sawdust

Kicking Sawdust: Running Away with the Circus and Carnival
By Clayton Anderson
Daylight, October 2020
For more info: https://daylightbooks.org/products/kicking-sawdust-running-away-with-the-circus-and-carnival

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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