Sara Gruen's first novel, Riding Lessons, was published in 2004. She is
an animal lover who lives with her husband, three children, five cats, two
goats, a dog, and a horse in an environmental community north of Chicago. She
says that she was a day away from starting a different book when she saw an
article in the Chicago Tribune about a photographer who documented train
circuses during the 1920s and 1930s - she was immediately hooked. Within
weeks she'd tracked down many out of print books on the subject and spent days
at the Ringling Circus Museum.
Her research took a full year, and many of the more extraordinary scenes in the
book are based on fact or anecdote (as Gruen points out the distinction between
the two in circus history is famously blurred!)
In addition to the glamorous aspects of circus life, Gruen also shows many of the harsh realities of life during the depression, such as Jamaica ginger paralysis which crippled approximately 100,000 Americans in 1930 and 1931, but is virtually forgotten today as the people effected lived on the fringe of society.
"Jake" had been legally sold for medicinal purposes since the Civil War and, because it was 70% alcohol, was widely used during prohibition (1920-1933) as a means of legally consuming alcohol (contrary to common belief, the consumption of alcohol was legal during prohibition, it was the production, distribution and sale that was prohibited). However, in 1930, the manufacturer of Jake decided to water the product with cheap, tasteless triorthocresyl phosphate (TCP). The highly toxic result (TCP is also used as a pesticide) caused temporary or permanent paralysis in 50-100,000 people.
This article was originally published in July 2006, and has been updated for the
May 2007 paperback release.
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