Set in 1919, Stephanie Allen’s debut novel, Tonic and Balm, follows Doc Bell’s Miracle and Mirth Medicine Show as it reels in rural audiences with variety acts and snake-oil cures. Doc Bell, the founder and emcee of the traveling show, is not a doctor. Rather, he is a flimflam artist who aims to make as much money as possible selling bogus medical elixirs to the poor, rural audiences drawn to the spectacle.
“For some years now, I’ve lived my life with a cast of characters in my head, the members of a down-on-its-luck medicine show traveling through southern Pennsylvania in the summer following the end of World War I,” says Allen, an NEA fellow whose previous work, a short story collection A Place between Stations, was a Hurston/Wright Award finalist. The author gives voice to the members of Tonic and Balm’s troupe via a novel-in-stories structure, with each chapter hosted by a different narrator. More accurately, this is a novel constructed of short-story sequences, with each chapter dependent on the chapter before it.
As the book opens, we first see the medicine show through the eyes of 12-year-old Ephraim, a runaway who has hitched a ride on an onion truck. Like a moth to flame, he is drawn to the glow. Doc Bell’s troupe features both black and white performers, including a banjo player and his heart-hardened wife, a queer sword-swallower and her flighty girlfriend, and a disgraced doctor in the throes of alcoholism. Threading their stories together is Miss Antoinette, the show’s Sheba, Queen of the Nile. Antoinette’s “tremendous head, swollen from hydrocephaly, sways slightly above her shoulders. A turban covers it without hiding its fantastic proportions.” Each character finds something of themselves in this young woman, whether they expect to or not.
As the novel progresses, the various narrators reveal the workings of the show, as well as their own inner workings. They reveal developing relationships that surprise them but that make sense in the context of this disparate band whose common thread is existence in society’s margins.
Like the tearing down of the stages and tents at every stop, each chapter further deconstructs the show, and in deconstructing this microcosm, Allen exposes and explores issues of race, gender, and poverty in the larger world outside the medicine show. Banjo-player Fleet, for example, confides that he knows “the kinds of goings-on that were happening, nothing new but bloodier this summer of 1919 than they had been for a long time. … In Washington, D.C., they dragged people off trolley cars and set fire to houses with children in them. Jails torn open, colored men chased down like dogs, mobs tearing people to bits.”
Tildy South exists in the margins of the margins, being both black and a lesbian. She joined the show after cooking, cleaning, and providing child care for a white family, and now she swallows swords. “Nobody got a hold of my body now,” she says, “but it do feel strange to find out exactly where the bottom of me is every day.”
As various characters peel off, leaving the medicine show to reconnect with their pasts, to reclaim their dignity or their sobriety, to reunite with family, we get a sense that this is the end of an era. It’s telling that Doc Bell himself gets no chapter of his own. There is no depth to his character. He’s about nothing more than the money he can swindle. His route doesn’t change: “Same route every season, even when the War was on. Same little towns that seen his show every year for ten or twenty running but hardly got another thing to look forward to.” His motivations don’t change: “He do three lectures a night every night just like always, and once he get started ain’t a soul in the audience thinking about the weather. It only take a minute for him to get their minds on themselves, on all the dangers just waiting to take hold of their bodies, on how weak they are, on how much they need some help to make it through this cruel world whole.”
The final chapters belong to Tildy and to Antoinette, who represents the binding thread to both the medicine show and the book. Like Miss Antoinette, who “had sides to her didn’t nobody know about,” Tonic and Balm is faceted, surprising, and worthy of attention. Step right up.