Don’t you love when you’re just minding your own business and a wonderful book falls in your lap? That’s what happened with Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show by Frank Delaney. What a story! In fact, every character has a tale to tell, and through our narrator Ben, the author enables each of these big, colorful characters to tell a little something.
Ben MacCarthy is a “man of mature years” telling the story of himself at eighteen when his quiet life on his family’s farm in Ireland was changed dramatically and completely by the remarkable Venetia Kelly. Ben has a reason for telling this story: it isn’t over, and he’s “telling it now to try to secure it’s ending.” I had forgotten this statement on page 4 by the book’s tearful end, but it perfectly exemplifies the author’s ability to draw the reader in by dropping little hints, digressions, and short sub-stories about the characters, and especially about the theater, politics, and the spirit of the people of Ireland in the early 1930s.
It takes about 70 distracting but enjoyable pages before Ben has introduced everyone and set the stage for what he calls the Catastrophe and it’s aftermath. I don’t want to say what the catastrophe is, but it involves Ben’s loving and dependable father doing something completely out of character, Ben’s shattered mother, Venetia’s own dramatic and conniving mother, the violent and boisterous tactics of Venetia’s grandfather, a couple players, acrobats and a ventriloquist’s dummy, two adoptive parents, the mystical Venetia herself, and of course, our hero, Ben.
VKTS is almost presented like a play, with Ben on an Homeric journey complete with a black-clad guide, Shakespearean references, lots of foreshadowing and even the mysterious appearance of a shrew. Delaney’s powerful descriptions and “lyrical prose” are utterly captivating. Early on the mature Ben asks:
Is there an ideal age at which momentous events should happen to us?
As he grapples with his growing responsibility after the catastrophe he states “it’s so difficult for an only child to be his real age.” With so much to handle he almost pleads:
My parents treated me as almost an equal. And I looked mature quite early…inside me, however, at that moment, I was no older than twelve.
Ben decidedly handles the situation with much more aplomb than the typical 18 year old, but he does wreak some of his own havoc along the way. After the Catastrophe and it’s aftermath, and with the sound advice of those two aforementioned “adoptive parents”, Ben continues his soul searching and becomes first, a spalpeen – a type of Irish migrant farmer, and then a seanchai, roaming the countryside telling and collecting stories.
Then began the rest of my life. Then began the slow, slow acceptance. Then began the shaping of a life that took so long to shape. It would lead me to places in my soul that I never knew existed. It would lead me to landscapes barer and colder than that of the moon. It would lead me to make an interpretation of this calamity, an interpretation that turned into a life…….And it would lead me to embrace the most powerful emotion in the world. That, you say, would be love, wouldn’t it? No. The most powerful emotion in the world is hope. I should know.
When the story ended and I realized exactly why it had been written, I was left wanting to ask the lead characters a few questions of my own. Then, I felt satisfied that I had read a really good tale, told by a fabulous seanchai.