Battle For The Big Top by Les Standiford

“PT Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus”.

There’s just something about the circus, isn’t there? I love books set in or that are about the circus. They always have an element of hard scrabble lives and magic. I think I’m not the only one. Everyone has heard of Barnum and Bailey, and many films have been made about the real people who worked in them and romances and set in under the big top. I really enjoyed this book. It’s by Les Standiford, who wrote The Man Who Invented Christmas about Charles Dickens Christmas Carol, and that was adapted into the recent film of the same name.

Here, Standiford takes a look at the circus, with a quick look at it’s origins in Rome, and through the development of the circus in America, specifically under Barnum, Bailey and Ringling, through to it’s final years. This was the gilded age of circuses, and Standiford explores the world behind the stage, the dramatic stories of one-up-manship and big personalities all trying to be the biggest, best and most famous. The book is rich in anecdotes about the lives of the people who worked the circuses, the performers and hands, as well as the big names, which I really liked too.

The book is well researched and written in a conversational tone. It’s not overly long. The author looks into and acknowledges the more controversial aspects of the circus as well, from the treatment of people to that of the animals as well, and I liked the way he placed them in their historical context, not excusing them but also letting us know why this was felt acceptable at the time. Which is part of the story as a whole, really. If you want a deeper dive into the human and animal rights, it’s not really the purview of this book, but it’s not brushed under the rug by any means. It’s just more of a broad history.

Of course, like any historical book, there are some sad stories as well. I wouldn’t normally mention it, really but I think some of you might like to know ahead of time that there are some deaths of people and animals in this book. It’s not sensationalised or salacious at all, and par for the course with this genre. But you might like to know before you start reading, if you’re soft hearted, like me, who teared up over an elephant and some horses.

All in all, this is a well researched book, nicely written and concise, without being too light. I liked following the ups and downs of these people’s lives and fortunes, as well as the changing face of the circus and it’s acts. It’s really so interesting. After reading this, I’ll be looking for more by this author, as well as maybe learning more about some of the people and stories he introduced me to.

Read It If: you have ever thought about running away and joining the circus… A fascinating subject and a really nice read. I liked it.

Thank you to HBG Canada for the copy of this book for review. All opinions are my own, and this book is out now.

2 thoughts on “Battle For The Big Top by Les Standiford

  1. kalynnwrites

    I like how you mentioned that he placed events, etc in their “historical context, not excusing them but also letting us know why this was felt acceptable at the time”. I feel like nowadays there’s a tendency to erroneously judge past events by present standards and then erase/demonize those events, movies, etc that aren’t up to par for today, instead of allowing it to be an opportunity for learning/growth. I might have to pick up this book now. Thanks for reviewing!

    Liked by 1 person

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