We like our truths straightforward and simple, served up as stories, with a clear beginning, middle and end. Reality, alas, is disinclined to offer up truth, or anything else for that matter, in a direct manner. First-person accounts are both notoriously unreliable and unverifiable, even as they are presented as documentary evidence. Historical records become fragmented, with promising motherlodes trailing off into scattershot marginalia. Color everything through the lenses of present mores and emotions and the prospects of coherence and completion seem dim.
All of this makes Beth Macy’s Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South an astonishing accomplishment even before you get to the explosive emotions explored here. Macy keeps her focus at ground level, and in so doing challenges herself because the story and the truths you find here are both complicated and contradictory. Bits of the broad outline only seem simple. The power of Truevine is Macy’s ability to speak to and of hardscrabble lives that are horrific in terms of the world today, and yet illuminate those aspects of the present that remain difficult to discuss. Truevine asks lots of questions and offers lots of answers, but as in reality, the two do not always line up neatly.
In theory, we should know the story, which played out in the press and public some 100-ish years ago. George and Willie Muse were albino black boys born to sharecropper parents who worked a tobacco farm. They were lured away from the fields by a white man with candy who turned them into circus freak-show superstars. Their mother spent 13 years trying to get them back. We think we can piece together this much from uncontestable public records. In Truevine, Beth Macy carefully rebuilds all the worlds traversed in this seemingly succinct narrative. What the public records tell us is not even a small part of either the story or the truth of what happened.
Truevine is an utterly compelling exploration of history, story, narrative and the human. Macy takes us inside freak shows, places where the outcasts of this world could find equality and acceptance as well as the utterly bizarre. We see the world of the Jim Crow, the supposedly post-slavery South that ripples uneasily into the present. Macy spent years getting to know the descendants and relatives of the Muse family. Yet, as complex and contradictory as the stories she is told are, the reading experience is detailed immersive and crisply told. And because, of necessity, the story goes many different places, there are lots of fascinating subcultures to enjoy… or at least witness.
The Muse Brothers’ experience is ultimately unknowable; neither of them left records. What we can know is the sum total of what has been said and what has been written. As you find yourself compelled by the smart, nuanced storytelling you find in Truevine, you’ll realize that stories, truth, and history do not, in fact, cannot, tell us what we want and need to know. We humans need other humans to build us worlds of words. The worlds you find in Truevine are astonishingly engaging and entertaining, but never neat and tidy. This is the stuff of life, understandable and inexplicable.
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that by choosing to write of sharecroppers, Beth Macy gave herself a tough row to hoe. This book is dives straight into the uncomfortable, served up by the unconfirmable. As Beth and I discussed her book, we talked about the complicated tangle of data that she unearthed as she tried to merge truth, story and history. Her book is meticulously documented and exciting to read. And yes, let me mention that I could not help but think of one of my favorite novel, ever, Katherine Dunn’s iconic Geek Love as I read Truevine. And it’s not just the freak show that joins these two. It’s that both offer up the contradictions of life in exciting details. You can hear Beth and I speak to the details and the contradictions of life by following this link to the MP3 audio file. Or, you can just stick around, kick back on the electronic front porch, and listen to the stories, finding life.