November 2016

Beth Macy

Untangling the truth in Truevine
Interview by
It took Beth Macy 25 years to unearth the Muse brothers’ sad saga, requiring painstaking research on multiple fronts to try to “untangle a century of whispers from truth.” The result is a deeply moving and endlessly compelling book, such an intricate tale that it’s worthy of not one but two subtitles—Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.
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"It’s the best story in town, but no one has been able to get it,” a photographer told journalist Beth Macy soon after she arrived in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1989 to write for the Roanoke Times

He was referring to the tale of George and Willie Muse, young albino African-American brothers from a sharecropping family who had reportedly been kidnapped in 1899 from the tiny tobacco-farming community of Truevine, then displayed for decades as sideshow freaks by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. They were billed under various stage names, including “Eko and Iko, Sheepheaded Cannibals from Equador” and “Ambassadors from Mars.”

It took Macy 25 years to unearth the brothers’ sad saga, requiring painstaking research on multiple fronts to try to “untangle a century of whispers from truth.” The result is a deeply moving and endlessly compelling book, such an intricate tale that it’s worthy of not one but two subtitles—Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.

Thankfully, Macy had the much-needed investigative chops, having been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and written an award-winning bestseller, Factory Man. Still, she ran into plenty of dead ends, she says by phone from her home in Roanoke.

George Muse died in 1971, but Willie lived out his last years in Roanoke, cared for by his great-niece Nancy Saunders, the proprietor of a popular soul-food restaurant. As the family gatekeeper, Saunders wouldn’t let reporters anywhere near her beloved uncle.

“You’re too curious,” Saunders told Macy when she began inquiring, pointing to a sign that said, “SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP.” After dealing with decades of people knocking on her family’s doors, demanding to see “the savages,” Saunders had developed what Macy calls an “exterior toughness . . . so that people wouldn’t ask rude questions about her uncle.”

After Willie died in 2001, Macy was allowed to co-write a series of articles about the Muse brothers for the Roanoke Times, although Saunders remained guarded. Finally, on Christmas morning 2013, Saunders gave Macy her blessing to write a book, with one proviso: “No matter what you find out or what your research turns up, you have to remember: In the end, they came out on top.” 

The going was anything but easy; even seemingly simple facts proved to be roadblocks. “It’s so frustrating,” Macy explains. “George was born anytime between 1890 and 1901, and that’s a pretty big span.”

Macy began interviewing older African Americans who had grown up with the story. “Some of them just thought it was a hoax,” Macy says. “Some of them thought it was true; some of them lived near George and Willie in their later years and were scared of them like a Boo Radley figure.”

Macy drove the elders around town, listening eagerly as they shared memories sparked by passing landmarks. “Trying to figure out what happened was a challenge,” Macy recalls, “but also trying to figure out what the lore meant to people in the community as well as the family was a whole other layer of meaning to the story.”

In Truevine, Macy has created a vivid portrait of two men whose lives were forever upended one earth-shattering day in 1899.

Their observations and insights soon led to another revelation. “I don’t think I knew how much the book would be about race when I started,” Macy says. “The circus is such a whiz-bang thing, you think most of the book will be about that. But to me, those really palpable, gritty, daily experiences that African Americans had during Jim Crow, those were the most powerful things. I felt like it was an honor that people would tell me these stories and trust me to get it right.”

In Truevine, Macy has created a vivid portrait of two men whose lives were forever upended one earth-shattering day in 1899. Sideshow exhibits for decades, they became excellent musicians, playing multiple instruments and singing.

The boys were told their mother was dead, but in truth, she never stopped looking for them. Harriett Muse finally tracked them down and brought them home in 1927, after a truly heart-stopping showdown. This illiterate maid stood up to eight policemen at the circus, as well as the Commonwealth’s attorney, who happened to be the founder of the local Ku Klux Klan. Then she had the gumption to sue the Greatest Show on Earth, claiming it owed the family $100,000 in damages and back pay.

“How did she do it?” Macy wonders. “How did she bring them home, not get arrested, not get hurt? She had no protection; there’s never any mention that her husband was with her. It was her alone.”

Despite Macy’s exhaustive research, many questions remain unanswered. At one point she commiserated with Canadian historian Jane Nicholas, who urged her to keep digging. If we only wrote the histories of the people who left detailed records, Nicholas told her, “we would only get to know about the really privileged people. You have to piece together your evidence with empathy and conjecture.”

Even now, months later, Macy remains moved by this wisdom. “That’s my favorite quote of the whole thing,” she says. “That’s the heart and soul of this book. Because George and Willie’s history wasn’t just erased, it was never written down to begin with.”

Now it finally is, ready for the world to read.

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Learn more about Beth Macy and Truevine in Alice Cary’s Behind the Interview post.

RELATED: Watch the CSPAN Book TV broadcast of Alice Cary's interview with Beth Macy at the 2016 Southern Festival of Books.

 

This article was originally published in the November 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Get the Book

Truevine

Truevine

By Beth Macy
Little, Brown
ISBN 9780316337540

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