Book review: A wild circus act with a deep meaning

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"The Circus Pig and the Kaiser: A Novel Based on a Strange but True Event," by Carolyn Kay Brancato, is a fast-paced drama of wit and humor amid politically charged circumstances.

This circus is an unlikely tour de force that heroically upsets the status quo. In this case, it is set in 1907 in a German border town where reverence for the hawkish and dictatorial Kaiser Wilhelm II is high. This is a wonderfully entertaining, but seriously messaged historical fiction about a band of circus characters defending the ideals of freedom of expression.

The author was inspired by Russian-American Nobel laureate Wassily Wassilyevich Leontief, a heroic "campaigner for academic autonomy and freedom of speech," who personally gave Brancato the idea "to look into the life of the Russian Circus performer Vladimir Leonidovich Durov." The story that Brancato creates is an authentic, charming and heart-felt portrayal of a band of circus performers who are more like family with all a family's problems, passions, joys and of course love, which is also portrayed in all its complexities.

The Russian, Great Fedorovitch Circus, owned by the oafish and inebriated Nikolai Mikhailovich Kologrivov, has hit hard times. Matters worsen overnight when Nikolai seduces the wrong aristocrat's wife and the circus must take the act far away across the border into western Germany. On the perilous trip across the mountains, Nikolai is killed falling from a cliff and his wife, Natasha, is suddenly owner of the circus. Among them is a love interest of Natasha, Vladimir Leonidovich Durov.

Durov is a trainer of clever miniature pigs and he has a propensity for rousing the ire and unwelcome brutal retaliations of government authorities because of his deep belief in the freedom of expression in all forms, especially in the arts, and particularly in his parodying circus act, which makes scandalous fun of the powers that be. Durov has perfected a clever act with his dear Sasha, the star of the piglets, who, while wearing a uniform resembling that of the Kaiser, can flip a helmet upon her little head, characterizing to a tee the Kaiser himself. The local government loyal to the Kaiser in all matters is not pleased, especially Sergeant Major Wolfgang Dunsendorfer, who rallies his army of dragoons to put a stop to the circus and cut the pigs' uniforms to shreds and scatter the circus wayward. But worst of all, Durov is arrested and pressured to sign an apology or face prison, and the circus must find a way to set him free and support his commitment to freedom of expression. It is a nail-biter to the very end.

A Richmond resident, Brancato has had a career as an economist and is an expert in institutional investments and corporate governance. She has also been a director, choreographer and playwright. Her plays have appeared at Steppenwolf in Chicago, the John Houseman Theatre in New York City, and the Church Street Theater in Washington D.C. She created the play "Censored" to celebrate the First Amendment, bringing to life banned books, art, and other cultural institutions that have been repressed in the United States. She has published two non-fiction books: "Getting Listed on Wall Street" and "Institutional Investors and Corporate Governance." "The Circus Pig and the Kaiser" is her debut novel. A book event with Brancato will take place at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox on Thursday, June 13, at 5:30 p.m.

Colin Harrington is the Events Manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. Colin welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com

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