First-time novelist Robert Hough was not the kind of boy who dreamed of running away with the circus. But later in life, after he read a brief biographical sketch of Mabel Stark, the greatest female tiger trainer of the 1910s and 1920s, the circus more or less ran away with him.
"I became a sort of circus aficionado," Hough says during a call to his home in Toronto. In fact, during his research for his fictionalized autobiography of Stark, he traveled with a modern-day circus throughout rural Texas. And even now, two years after The Final Confession of Mabel Stark was published to critical acclaim in Canada, and with his next novel nearing completion, Hough still eagerly anticipates his next trip to the Ringling Brothers Museum in Sarasota, Florida.
"The circus was a wild environment back in Mabel’s day," Hough says, noting that today’s circuses are far tamer than circuses of that bygone Golden Age. Those earlier circuses thrilled locals with their well-deserved reputation for the forbidden. They drew much of their itinerant labor force from local drunk wards and insane asylums. Their infamous "cooch" shows were designed to lure ogling townsmen away from their women and then separate these hapless husbands from their wallets during the gambling, or "grift," that almost always preceded the girly shows. Before reforms required that lions and tigers be castrated, declawed and defanged, the "big cat" acts, which were wildly popular with audiences, often proved fatal to trainers.
"In Mabel’s day, trainers got killed all the time," Hough says. "In fact, Mabel’s big break with the Al G. Barnes Circus came because the woman who had the tiger act before her got killed."
What leads a petite girl from a rural farm in Kentucky to become a big cat trainer? It’s one of the questions that drives Hough’s exuberant and sometimes sorrowful novel. And Hough’s fictional exploration of this and similar questions is so compelling that actress Kate Winslet is eager to play Mabel Stark in the movie version of the novel that is currently under development.
"I think she’d be great," Hough says. "If she’s not the best screen actress out there, she’s certainly in the top three. And it would be a demanding role to play Mabel, because so much of what she’s about is internalized."
Hough reveals Mabel’s inner self by giving her a voice and a way of telling her story that is unique and idiosyncratic. Mabel’s voice, her perspective, her attitude is one of the great pleasures and great achievements of the novel. "I spent a lot of time working on Mabel’s voice, on the way she sounds," Hough says. "And then I just kind of let ‘er rip and wrote the vast majority of the book in one eight-month frenzy of creativity."
The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is set in 1968 with Mabel Stark now approaching 80 and about to be canned by Jungleland, a California amusement park where she had performed with her cats since leaving the circus in the 1930s. She reflects on her life with a mixture of passion and sadness, trying to understand what her life has meant, and particularly how responsible she has been for the accidents, failed marriages and tragedies that have followed her.
Around Mabel’s inner quest, Hough weaves an incredibly energetic story of circus life in its heyday. Mabel knew, but did not always like, the greats of the circus world—John Ringling, Clyde Beatty, Al G. Barnes, lion trainer Louis Roth. They appear here in all their strange and many-colored glory. It’s an exciting and entrancing portrait of life in what was then the most popular public entertainment in the land.
One of the most difficult elements for Hough to write about was the sexual nature of part of Mabel Stark’s tiger act. During research for the book, Hough found a letter from Stark describing in colorful detail her act with Rajah, her most famous tiger. "One of the scenes in the book that I knew I was going to have the hardest time trying to sell was the sex with tigers stuff," Hough says. "I wouldn’t have put that stuff in except that I was duty bound to do so. The book would have been a cheat had I not acknowledged that facet of her personality, and it’s a pretty big thing. Unresolved sexual conflicts are the sort of things that can groom a person’s entire life. And in her case, I’m sure it did."
Hough, who studied psychology at university before undertaking "a less than stellar seven-month advertising career" and then moving on to magazine and story writing, says he is surprised at how Freudian his story of Mabel Stark has turned out to be.
"It was her subconscious that motivated all these problems in her life and caused her to pick a profession where she knew she was going to get hurt. This is a book about a woman whose self-destructive quality gets mixed up with her sexuality, and that’s the tension that informs everything that happens in the book."
Despite all that, Hough regards Mabel Stark as courageous, perhaps even heroic, and he hopes the American publication of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark will bring her the fame she deserves.
"I’m hoping this book gets popular and people discover Mabel Stark so that she’ll go down as one of the best big cat trainers in history."
Alden Mudge, who writes from Oakland, is a member of the California Book Awards jury.