Allison's Book Bag

When the Circus Came to Town by Lawrence Yep

Posted on: April 13, 2012

Just after school starts, everything changes for Ursula: She develops smallpox. When she recovers, her face is covered with scabs. Despite all of Ursula’s wishes and hopes and prayers, the little holes on her face remain. Yet Ursula might have moved forward with her life, if not for the incident at the stagecoach. A passenger laughs at her and cruelly says that her face looks like Swiss cheese. From that day on, Ursula refuses to leave her room. With nothing better to do, she begins to play the harmonica. One day, the family’s cook sends her a thank-you gift for her music, which he can hear from the family’s restaurant kitchen. And so begins Ursula’s friendship with a Chinese man named Ah Sam that also changes her life.

When the Circus Comes to Town by Lawrence Yep tackles prejudice through different characters. First, Ursula is ridiculed for her face. Her father encourages, “There are donkeys in the world like that man, but most people aren’t donkeys.” Second, there is Ah Sam. His hire didn’t sit well with the town. Folks complained that Chinese used a drug called opium, cheated and stole, and shouldn’t be trusted. Even Ursula initially feels mad at her parents for hiring a foreigner. Third, there is Tom. He is Native American. Upon meeting Ah Sam, Tom tells him that he has the mark. In other words, they have the same skin and eyes. They’re the “ones standing outside looking at the party inside”.

As Ursula becomes friends with Ah Sam, he introduces her to various aspects of Chinese culture. Initially, these are only briefly described. For example, one of Ah Sam’s presents to Ursula is a complicated design of golden threads that spells out the Chinese word for happiness. When Ursula ventures out of her room and into the kitchen and meets Ah-Sam for the first time, he’s using Chinese knives. They look like cleavers, with even the handles being made of metal. As he teaches Ursula how to cook rice, she asks about his long hair and the string designs that he made for her. Ursula learns that Ah Sam hopes to one day return home to China to see his family.

By now, Ursula and Ah Sam have become friends. She invites him to celebrate Christmas with her family. He makes plans to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his cousins and invites Ursula to join them. Ursula’s family learns that the Chinese New Year use a different calendar. Ah Sam also tells them part of celebrating the Chinese New Year involves putting on a circus, but first the cousins wish to practice their tricks by showing them to Ursula and her family. Ursula scoffs at the idea: How can four people put on a circus? Ah Sam responds, “What do you think a circus is? Big tents and big bands and lots of performers?” Well, yes, this is what Ursula thought a circus meant. Ah Sam informs her, “The magic doesn’t come from size and flash.” One of most delightful sections of When The Circus Came To Town describes the Chinese circus tricks. On the heels of that section, readers also learn about other things that happen on Chinese New Year too such as the payment of debts, delivery of money to children, cutting of hair and trimming of braids (queue), and setting off fireworks and beat gongs to scare away bad spirits. All of these are supposed to be important to Chinese people in preparing for the future.

You might be surprised to learn that When the Circus Comes to Town is based on real events. There was no Ursula, but there was an epidemic that disfigured a number of people–including an attractive young woman. Instead of one Chinese cook, there were two. Otherwise, Yep followed the real events that occurred in Montana in the last half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. If you wish to read more, check out Elliot Paul’s memoir A Ghost Town on the Yellowstone.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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