Where did you get the idea for Daniel joining a circus?
When I started writing A Difficult Boy, I didn’t have a sequel in mind. But as I was editing the first book, I realized that Daniel’s story really wasn’t finished. I kept wondering what he would do and how he would manage in the world, especially since he’d spent most of his life being told what to do. So I thought he might look for Mr. Stocking, the peddler from the first book, for advice. Because Daniel is a natural horse whisperer, I knew he would want to do something with horses, and I at first thought he might get involved with the military, in the cavalry service, but that didn’t feel right to me. So I began thinking about what other jobs might involve horses, and the circus seemed like a natural fit. It also provided lots of opportunities to create interesting characters and situations.
How did you do the research for Mending Horses?
Some of the background for “Mending Horses” came from work that I did as a historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village, which is a living history museum in Massachusetts. There, I learned about daily life of people in 19th-century New England. But working at OSV didn’t teach me about early 19th century circuses, so I did a lot of research at the Museum of the Early American Circus in Somers, New York. They have circus posters, account books and journals, publications, and more. The website of the Circus Historical Society was another excellent resource. Most important of all were the works of Stuart Thayer (1926-2009), who wrote wonderful books and articles about pre-Civil War American circuses.
I also had to do a lot of research about the Irish immigrants living and working in New England mill towns and working on the railroad. Brian C. Mitchell’s The Paddy Camps: The Irish of Lowell, 1821-1861 was a wonderful resource for some of that information.
I learned about the Western Rail Road from newspaper accounts of the time period, papers and records of the Western Rail Road, and from Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, who has done considerable research on Irish railroad workers in 19th-century New England.
To learn more about the horse training elements of the story, I attended demonstrations by horse trainers like Monty Roberts, read lots of books about horse whispering, and had the opportunity to observe a young woman who retrains abused horses. I also read about 19th-century horse trainers like John Rarey, who was known for his humane methods of training.
Is Mending Horses based on real people, places, or events?
With the exception of Farmington, Massachusetts, and Chauncey, Connecticut, all the towns and villages mentioned in the book are real places. All of the people in the story are fictitious, except for the landlord at the inn in Springfield toward the end of book. There really was a Jeremy Warriner, whose inn was famous for hospitality and good food.
One event that actually occurred was the arrival of the Western Rail Road in Springfield, which happened on October 1, 1839—perfect timing for my story. I’d known that the railroad was under construction in the late 1830s and early 1840s, but it wasn’t until I’d already chosen the date for my story and decided to make Hugh a railroad worker that I learned of the October 1 event, which fit in perfectly.
While Mr. Chamberlain’s traveling show is fictitious, the stunts that his players perform are based on circuses of the time period. James “Grizzly” Adams (1812-1860), Dan Rice (1823-1900) and Joe Pentland (1816-1873) were just a few of the real-life performers who provided the ideas for my characters and their performances.
How were circuses in the 1830s different from circuses today?
In the 1830s, circuses were just beginning to evolve into their present form. At first, circuses of the 18th century were primarily exhibitions of skilled horseback riding, and didn’t tend to travel. Traveling acrobats, magicians, singers, and jugglers generally performed separately from such shows. Menageries also tended to be distinct entities; at first they were more like traveling zoos than collections of performing animals. By the late 18th century, circuses had begun to incorporate non-equestrian performers. By the 1830s, show managers were bringing together menageries, equestrian acts, acrobats, comedians, and singers into large traveling shows. Shows might include things we don’t normally associate with circuses today, such as opera singers, displays of artwork, dramatic performances, or panoramas of historic events. Traveling tradesmen, peddlers, teachers, exhibitors, lecturers, and performers—what we might today think of as “sideshows”—often followed a circus in order to take advantage of the potential customers drawn by the larger show.
Why is Mr. Chamberlain’s show called a museum instead of a circus?
In many New England towns in the 1830s, there were laws that either prohibited traveling performers, or levied heavy licensing fees. Shows like Mr. Chamberlain’s Peripatetic Museum sometimes might call themselves an “exhibition” or a “museum,” or might emphasize the menagerie portion of the show in order to evade those laws. In spite of such laws, newspapers, diaries, and other records show that acrobats, menageries, trick riders, and other traveling entertainers roamed throughout New England. Advertisements for such shows often went to great lengths to assure audiences that programs would be educational, morally uplifting, and “chaste.”
Names for circuses could get pretty creative and elaborate. Here are a few actual show names from the 19th century:
- The Hippozoonomadon and Athelolypmimanthem
- Yankee Robinson’s Colossal Moral Exhibition with Egyptian Wallapuss
- L.B. Lent’s Universal Living Exposition, Metropolitan Museum, Mastadon Menagerie, Hemispheric Hippozoonomadon, Cosmographic Caravan, Equescurriculum, Great New York Circus and Monster Musical Brigade
- P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie, Hippodrome, Polytechnic Institute & International Zoological Garden
- John Robinson’s Great World’s Exposition, Museum, Aquarium, Animal Conservatory & Strictly Moral Circus
- W.W. Cole’s New Colossal Shows, Consolidated Three Ring Circus, Menagerie, Gallery of Wax Statuary, Russian Roller Skaters, Elevated Stage, Encyclopedia and Races
- J. Taylor’s Great American Double Circus, Huge World’s Museum, Caravan, Hippodrome, Menagerie and Congress of Wild and Living Animals
Was it common to sell a child whom a parent didn’t want?
Well, technically it wasn’t legal to sell a child in New England in the 1830s. However, a parent could apprentice a child to a craftsperson or farmer, in effect giving the master under the apprenticeship agreement nearly complete control over the child. This arrangement was also referred to as an indenture, hence such children were sometimes called indentured servants. So when Mr. Stocking offers to “buy” Billy from Hugh Fogarty, he’s not literally buying the child, but offering to take Billy on as an apprentice or indentured servant. Such arrangements might happen if a parent were too impoverished to take care of his or her children. Parents also apprenticed their children in order to get them trained for a particular trade or craft. A parent might also hire a child out as a worker for day wages–any pay the child received would legally belong to the child’s parent or guardian.
Where did Mr. Stocking get the things he sold from his wagon?
In the 1830s, there were a lot of manufacturers of tinware in Connecticut, and they would sell their products through peddlers who traveled across the country. Peddlers also might add things like brooms, sewing supplies, patent medicines, books, and dozens of other products to their wares, which they might obtain by trading with storekeepers or wholesalers. In Mending Horses, Mr. Stocking’s cousin Sophie is married to a man who makes tinware and supplies Mr. Stocking with many of the goods he sells. Like other peddlers, Mr. Stocking also carries dozens of other products in addition to tinware.
Who are the people on the cover?
The cover was created by artist Richard Tuschman. A young actor/model posed for Daniel. Billy was played by the child of one of the artist’s friends. They did a photo shoot in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and the artist developed the cover based on the photos from that shoot. The horse is named Lumpy, and according to the artist, “The biggest challenge was that Lumpy just wanted to eat the grass.”