The electric woman A memoir in death-defying acts

Tessa Fontaine

Book - 2018

"Follows the author on a life-affirming journey of loss and self-discovery through her time on the road with the last traveling American sideshow and her relationship with an adventurous, spirited mother"

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New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2018.
First edition
Physical Description
x, 366 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Main Author
Tessa Fontaine (author)
  • Prologue: The trick is there is no trick
  • The architecture of a wave
  • The snake charmer
  • Human history
  • Open the gates
  • The dragon
  • Snickers T. Clown
  • Cake
  • Hair ingredients
  • Let's us have fun
  • The moon is apple pie
  • The softest skin of anyone in the entire world
  • Daughters
  • Mud
  • And the low sky opens
  • The departure
  • Emergency
  • Fresh meat
  • The Titanic was child's play
  • Monsters
  • Premium footlong corn dogs
  • Where your name is writ
  • Cash money
  • Wildewoman
  • The sword swallower
  • The animal undone
  • Sounds past the noises
  • Behind the night's dress
  • Christmas fish
  • Dr. Frankenstein's hushed blood love song
  • Normalaphobia
  • Invisibilia
  • Bloodlust
  • The heroes
  • Electricity
  • By ship into the sea
  • Twinklers
  • The great reveal
  • Out of the mist
  • Epilogue: Where you will float electric.
Review by Booklist Reviews

Fontaine's trip to Gibsonton, Florida, became much more than a casual glimpse into the lives of the sideshow performers who reside there. Her conversation with Chris Christ of the World of Wonders (the last traveling sideshow in the U.S.) led to an invitation to join it for the summer season—as a performer. Fontaine, 29, quickly agreed and, with no experience to speak of, found herself their new bally girl, meaning that she would perform magic, charm snakes, eat fire, and escape handcuffs to entice crowds to the real show. While the sideshow narrative progresses linearly, another thread devoted to her mother's debilitating stroke two-and-a-half years earlier does not. The reflections on the latter bounce in time, integrating recollections of Fontaine's youth, the stroke itself, and its nightmarish aftermath. They are intercut with Fontaine's experiences on the road, sometimes acting as parallels or counterpoints, sometimes as simple insights into the life she was briefly escaping. Fascinating and heartfelt, Fontaine's memoir brushes with death but, more important, finds life and light in unexpected places, giving value to otherness in an unpredictable world. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

In the opening pages of this fascinating memoir, first-time author Fontaine learns how to eat fire. This is just one of several "death-defying" feats she learned during her stint with the World of Wonders, "the very last traveling sideshow of its kind." Intrigued by illusion and danger, Fontaine—a grad student studying writing—accepted a surprising invitation to join the show. Not only did she yearn for adventure but she also hoped to temporarily escape from assisting her mother after her mother suffered a debilitating stroke. Fontaine segues between hospital visits to her mother in California's Bay Area and the fantastical world of the carnival, where Fontaine learned to handle snakes, swallow swords, free herself from handcuffs, and eventually master the role of "the electric woman," lighting light bulbs with her tongue. Traveling state and county fairs, Fontaine shares the unusual stories of her fellow carnival workers, all of whom come across as devoted to the exhausting, grueling, yet inspiring work they do each day. Fontaine explores the history of the carnival (e.g., the first incubators were on display in a carnival sideshow in the early 20th century); its pecking order of performers, carnies, and foodies; its humor and dark underbelly. This remarkable, beautifully written memoir explores the depth of mother-daughter love and the courageous acts of overcoming fear and accepting change. (May) Copyright 2018 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

The author shares her experiences as a member of the World of Wonders traveling sideshow crew, and eventually a performer, all while losing her mother to the effects of a stroke.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

The author describes a life full of death-defying acts, first by her mother, who was determined to live and travel despite battling stroke after stroke, and her own experiences working for a carnival as an escape artist, snake charmer and high-voltage performer.

Review by Publisher Summary 3

A New York Times Editors' Choice; A Southern Living Best Book of 2018; An Amazon Editors' Best Book of 2018; A Refinery29 Best Book of 2018; A New York Post Most Unforgettable Book of 2018"Fascinating." —Vogue“This is the story of a daughter and her mother. It’s also a memoir, a love story, and a tale of high-flying stunts . . . An adventure toward and through fear.” —Southern Living Tessa Fontaine’s astonishing memoir of pushing past fear, The Electric Woman, follows the author on a life-affirming journey of loss and self-discovery—through her time on the road with the last traveling American sideshow and her relationship with an adventurous, spirited mother. Turns out, one lesson applies to living through illness, keeping the show on the road, letting go of the person you love most, and eating fire:The trick is there is no trick. You eat fire by eating fire. Two journeys—a daughter’s and a mother’s—bear witness to this lesson in The Electric Woman. For three years Tessa Fontaine lived in a constant state of emergency as her mother battled stroke after stroke. But hospitals, wheelchairs, and loss of language couldn’t hold back such a woman; she and her husband would see Italy together, come what may. Thus Fontaine became free to follow her own piper, a literal giant inviting her to “come play” in the World of Wonders, America’s last traveling sideshow. How could she resist? Transformed into an escape artist, a snake charmer, and a high-voltage Electra, Fontaine witnessed the marvels of carnival life: intense camaraderie and heartbreak, the guilty thrill of hard-earned cash exchanged for a peek into the impossible, and, most marvelous of all, the stories carnival folks tell about themselves. Through these, Fontaine trained her body to ignore fear and learned how to keep her heart open in the face of loss. A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, The Electric Woman is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds, especially that ever constant: good old-fashioned unconditional love.