Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! by Annette Curtis Klause (2006)

A copy of Freaks: Alive, on the Inside! by Annette Curtis Klause (2006) fell into my hands after Dr. M got it as a door prize in one of his teaching classes, and it makes for an entertaining and unique young adult novel.

Our hero, Abel Dandy, is a 17 year old boy. It is 1899 and Abel has lived all his life in Faeryland, an amusement park / carnival type place where visitors are entertained by bearded ladies, midgets, Siamese twins and other "freaks." Abel's mom has no arms and his dad has no legs, so Faeryland was one of the only places they could make a living. Abel has good friends there, but increasingly feels out of place since he doesn't have any physical oddities. He gets pretty good at throwing knives, but no one will give him an act. After receiving an exotic ring as a going away present from one of the Siamese twins, Abel decides to run away from home and seek his fortune.

Almost immediately he begins having detailed dreams about a beautiful Egyptian dancer who promises him adventure. He dismisses the dreams as the product of a fortuneteller predicting that he would go off and fall in love with an older foreign woman. After joining another circus as the assistant to a knife thrower, Abel discovers that his young friend from Faeryland, Apollo the Dog-faced Boy has followed him and is hiding out in the elephant's train car. With the added responsibility of taking care of Apollo (and rescuing him from the circus owners who think all "freaks" should be in an institution), Abel breaks away from the circus and hooks up with a small traveling show featuring a midget bearded lady, an alligator-skinned woman, a worm man, a man with two heads, a real Egyptian mummy, and a bunch of cute little freaky-children, as well as one mean skeleton-man manager and his creepy henchmen. As Abel works to return Apollo to his parents and meet his dream woman, he has to fight his way through some pretty dark situations and learn more than a few things about himself and the way the world works.

This book was a really fulfilling adventure and coming of age novel -- I think older junior high or high school students (as well as adults!) would really like it. There is some sexual business (Abel is 17 after all) and some violence in it, but it isn't too explicit and fits nicely with the action of the story. Klause's characters, her descriptions of circus life, and the view of late-19th century America are all strong points of the book. There is a "twist" that I could spot right away, but I think younger readers will be surprised, and even though I figured out what was going on more quickly than it was revealed, the plot ultimately moved beyond the twist and kept me entertained and excited.

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