Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South

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Truevine, published Oct. 18, 2016

The year was 1899, as the old people told the story; the place a sweltering Virginia tobacco community in the Jim Crow South called Truevine, where everyone they knew was either a former slave, or a child or grandchild of slaves.

Truevine is the story of George and Willie Muse, two African American brothers who were kidnapped and displayed as circus freaks, and whose mother embarked on an epic, decades-long struggle to get them back — and to get justice for her family.

Truevine is the result of hundreds of interviews and a quarter-century of research. Though the Muse brothers’ narrative has been passed down for over a century, no writer has ever gotten this close to the beating heart of their story, and its mysteries: Were they really kidnapped? How did their mother, a black maid toiling under the harsh restrictions of segregation, bring them home? And why, after getting there, would they ever want to go back?

At the height of their fame, the Muse brothers performed for British royalty and headlined over a dozen sold-out shows at New York’s Madison Square Garden. They were fine musicians and global superstars in a pre-broadcast era. But the very root of their success hinged on the color of their skin and in the outrageous caricatures they were forced to assume: supposed cannibals, sheep-headed freaks, even “Ambassadors from Mars.”

The full story of what happened in Truevine, Virginia is unforgettable, a book that will shock readers even as it warms their hearts.

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Photo courtesy of Milner Library Special Collections, Illinois State University

It’s the best story in town,’ a colleague told Beth Macy decades ago, ‘but no one has been able to get it.’  She now has, with tenacity and sensitivity. She gives a singular sideshow its due, offering these ‘Ambassadors from Mars’ a remarkable, deeply affecting afterlife.—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer-winning author of The Witches

Copy of congress of freaks

Photo courtesy of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art Tibbals Collection

This compelling account of one family’s tragic exploitation provides an important lens through which America’s tortured racial history and the cruel legacy of Jim Crow can be seen anew.—Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy and founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative

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Photo courtesy of Circus World Museum

Taking us into the dark corners of American history that are discussed only in whispers, Beth Macy shines a bright light on the racial profiteering of circus freak shows and the Jim Crow South. In the remarkable Truevine, Macy manages to do what all the exploitative showmen wouldn’t dare; she humanizes the Muse brothers, and in doing so, she has written an unforgettable story of both heartbreak and enduring love.—Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove

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    This is Ms. Macy’s first book, but it’s in a class with other runaway debuts like Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit” and Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”: These nonfiction narratives are more stirring and dramatic than most novels. And Ms. Macy writes so vigorously that she hooks you instantly. You won’t be putting this book down. — Janet Maslin
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