Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU

Failing the Trapeze

Written by Annie Beckmann

September 16, 2014

closeup of the unique Lemieux Library windows

Susan Meyers' award-winning debut novel depicts circus life.

The daughter of a carnival concessionaire, Susan Meyers, '99, was steeped in a world of tempting two-foot-long corndogs, the first-ever curly fries and souvenirs that sparkled day or night. Seafair, Portland's Rose Festival, the Ellensburg Rodeo and any number of parades and other lively events up and down the West Coast and into Nevada were part of her experience through her 20s.

Yet what she remembers most about her colorful upbringing are stories about her grandmother, who was a circus high-wire trapeze artist and contortionist extraordinaire. Meyers revels in the tale of how an elephant could drop down on top of her grandma without crushing her to death. Her great grandmother also was a circus performer who did a variety of aerial acts.

Her father, who came within a year of being ordained as a priest, sold souvenirs to pay his seminary bills. Later, though, he married and became a carnival food concessionaire. Today, he's the food service provider on many of the Washington State Ferries. 

As Meyers pursued graduate degrees in creative writing and composition studies, she vowed to write one day about the glamour and spectacle of her family's life in 20th century circuses, carnivals and even vaudeville.

In fall 2012, Meyers would return to Seattle University as an assistant professor of English. She also gave herself a nudge to complete Failing the Trapeze, her first book of historical fiction, which won the Nilsen Prize for a debut novel. Meyers did have an opportunity to share some of what she wrote with her grandmother, who died three years ago at 92.  

"I think she would approve of the book," says Meyers, who today directs Seattle U's creative writing program.

Failing the Trapeze was released Sept. 1 and is now available at bookstores and online. Meyers will give several readings from the book in the coming months, including an appearance at 5 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5, at Elliott Bay Books.

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Here's an excerpt from Failing the Trapeze  (Southeast Missouri State University Press).

Maxine's mother was famous in the way that young women on the circus could be: regional and whispered about. No one knew her name; she didn't expect them to. What they remembered was her act. Each time, it began gradually: Dollie Mae ascending alone up the towered ladder to the high wire platform in her plain white leotard with its simple tulle skirt, being careful to keep her body rigid and her limbs pressed tight against her. At the top, she stood narrowly in the light of the big top, her husband on the bullhorn below, announcing to the crowd the beauty and splendor of that solo performance. Such confidence and grace. There was no one like her, not in all the fourteen counties that they toured each season. Dollie Mae Richards: The Queen of Trapeze. As the crowd watched, she would toe the edge of the platform, as though probing the temperature of the sea, considering each time that same abyss beneath her. There weren't any nets; she didn't want any. Flight, she would always insist, depends on just enough fear to keep you up there.  

But nothing in Dollie Mae's performance suggested fear. She was a smooth performer: lithe and sinewy and strong. As she readied herself, one of the catchers would hand her the bar, which she raised once sharply above her head, threw downward, and followed out above the crowd. Then she was flying, and you could see it finally: the plain white leotard that she had guarded so closely was studded with sequins and long, gauzy ribbons that streamed and shimmered as she moved. She was part cloud, part angel; the crowd drew its breath sharply.  

Book cover of "She can see us, can't she?" Maxine would want to know then. "She knows we're here?"  

The girl's favorite way of watching her mother perform was to sit tucked at the base of the high-wire ladder, staring upward at her mother's confident shape, rising up into the air. Usually, her mother's sister, Della, or perhaps their mother, Mary, would sit there, too, having just completed her own trapeze routine. "What's it like?" Maxine wanted to know. But her Aunt Della and Grandmother Mary warned her that she was probably too little just yet. "You'll see in time," they promised. "Just wait."   

But her mother hadn't waited. From her earliest days as a teenager on the show, Dollie Mae had perfected her solitary high-wire acts: flips and pirouettes and handstands. Few women, no matter what their age, were strong enough to do what she did. Her presence up there was like a dance: all improvisation, all art. Those performances kept people breathless; they never knew what to expect.  

In the circus world, a silent crowd was usually the last thing you wanted. People didn't come to the show to be on their best manners; a circus was a release. It was escape. But Dollie Mae was good at escaping, and people could see that. They could see it in her body, her wordless expression, the rigor and grace with which she shuttled around the trapeze bar. It was like a love affair. Whatever it was that Dollie Mae wanted in life, she had right there, in that singular trapeze bar.  

Finally, as she began to lose momentum, she would complete a final sequence of tricks on the stilled bar, looping her body out and over, shuttling around it by her elbows and shoulders, slipping her body upward along the wires and stretching the trapeze into angled shapes as she shuttled along it, those silvery ribbons dripping endlessly from her costume. Then, when she had had enough, she would flip her body upright into a handstand and gaze downward toward the clowns below, her tulle skirt folding over her torso, and her legs, all in white, scissoring so gracefully, you almost forgot you were watching a person at all. That's when the clowns would know that it was time to get themselves ready, and they drew out the broad trampoline that they would use to catch her. Then, without warning, Dollie Mae would fold her entire shape in half, spin twice more around the bar, and plunge like a diver into the naked air, those silvered strands of tulle pressed around her like water.