Twelve year old Owen Burke just fell out of a tree, and now his arm won’t move at all. But since Owen’s an orphan and destitute, there’s no doctor for him, just a few days in bed to recover and then a sling for the now-useless arm. Owen and his younger brother Zach are set to go on the next Orphan Train and find a new family out west, but when Owen decides that Zach will be better off and find a family more easily without a crippled brother to hold him back, Owen makes the sacrifice and goes off on his own.
And where Owen lands is the most unlikely place you could imagine, a floating circus traveling down the Mississippi River. Owen finds a new sort of family in Solomon, the freed slave who works as stable hand and all-round janitor on the circus barge called The River Palace. And Owen becomes attached to the animals, especially the elephants, Tippo and her calf, Little Bet.
The Floating Circus, a straight prose work of historical fiction, doesn’t have much in common with Ms. Zimmer’s 2007 verse novel for children, Reaching for Sun (Semicolon review here), except maybe a certain empathy for the disabled and a talented story-telling ability on the part of the author. I think The Floating Circus will reach a wider audience since it’s appropriate for reading aloud in conjunction with a history unit (pre-Civil War, 1850’s) or for suggesting to children who are interested in reading fiction about circuses or the Mississippi River or slavery.
The story moves along at a good pace, and the book is not too long, only about 200 pages. There is some violence portrayed in relation to both animals and people. Although it’s not graphic or gratuitous, if your child is especially sensitive to reading about the mistreatment of animals or of people, you might want to take a look at the book before handing it over. Otherwise, it’s highly recommended.