Mr Galliano's Circus
Review by Keith Robinson (January 18, 2007)
This is a heart-warming tale about a boy who falls in love with the circus. Young Jimmy Brown is an ordinary boy from an ordinary family. His father is a carpenter, but is currently out of work so money is a little tight in the Brown household. This is why, when Mr Galliano's circus comes to town, Jimmy has no hope of buying a ticket and going along.
This is a shame, but Jimmy isn't too upset. He understands the financial problems and wouldn't dream of pestering his mum and dad for something as frivolous as a ticket to the circus. Instead he hangs around the field where the circus has set up camp, and gradually gets to know the circus folk, in particular Lotta, a young girl about his age who takes a shine to him. In this way Jimmy gets to see more of the circus than the average ticket-buying public; he gets to meet the animals and their tamers, the clowns, the acrobats, and the rest – including Mr Galliano himself!
Mr Galliano is a colorful character, always dressed up and wearing his top hat – tilted to the side when he's in a good mood and straight up when things are not going well. He's loud and good-natured, but also quick-tempered; his whip cracks often, usually when making sure his circus is presented favorably with the general public. He makes sure there's not a scrap of litter left behind as the caravans move from place to place, and he ensures that all the circus folk are on best behavior when parading along the streets. Image is very important to Mr Galliano, and through him Blyton goes out of her way to make sure readers see circus folk as good, kindly sorts, while the general public are mean and ignorant. In one scene a grumpy woman, watching as the circus passes along the street, pats her dog and makes a comment that circus dogs are ill-treated and made to perform tricks.
Jimmy can't understand her; the circus dogs are as happy as can be, running about all the time, playing and getting exercise, while the grumpy woman's dog is fat, lazy and spoilt. In another scene, when a chimpanzee escapes, the public reaction is horror and fright; the police trap poor Sammy in a shed and are prepared to go in and shoot him, not realizing how harmless and friendly the chimpanzee is.
It's clear in this book that while "ordinary people" love the circus and are thrilled and delighted with the acts and performing animals, outside the ring the circus folk are thought of as a little odd – dirty and uncouth, probably "bad sorts" who will steal things from under your nose if you're not careful. In fact this is a common theme in many of Blyton's books that involve a travelling circus, or fair folk, or gypsies – especially throughout the Famous Five series. But while sometimes they really are bad sorts (as in Five Go To Mystery Moor), more often than not they're just seen that way on the surface. In Five Have a Wonderful Time the folk are really very unfriendly indeed... until Jo shows up, after which they're a warm, happy bunch. It really depends on which side of the fence you're standing on, and in Mr Galliano's Circus we get to live the lives of the circus folk and see through their eyes how ignorant the rest of the world is.
But to take a step back: As Jimmy becomes a familiar face around the circus, and Lotta introduces him to everyone, it becomes clear that he has a natural talent for speaking to animals. They seem to warm to him in an instant, and everyone is amazed. These animal-loving travellers are of the opinion that Jimmy must be all right, and let him run free about the place. Lotta is delighted to have a friend, albeit a temporary one – for the circus can't stay forever and will be moving on shortly.
When the scowling handyman does a runner with all Mr Galliano's money, things are in turmoil. Not only are they short of cash, but there's no one to fix the loose wheels, the broken cages, and numerous other small jobs. Enter Jimmy's father, an out-of-work carpenter, who is over the moon at finally getting some decent work – if only for a short time. However, when the circus packs up to move on, Mr Galliano asks Mr Brown if he would like to come with them. It's a tough decision, for Mr Brown is making good money... but how can he leave his wife and son behind?
As it turns out he doesn't have to. Jimmy proves his worth in an incident with a runaway elephant, and his entire family is invited to join the circus. It seems a ludicrous concept in this day and age for a family to pack up and leave their home behind at just a few hours notice, and join a circus...! The phrase "gone to join a circus" is something that's thrown into conversation when someone you once knew disappears from the radar. In this day and age families from ordinary English towns just don't join circuses, at least not in the way described here. Yet, perhaps in 1938 when this novel was written, shutting up the house and running off with the circus might have seemed a favorable way of life if you got the chance for some regular work. Still, I couldn't help wondering about the many things one must do when leaving for good; presumably the neighbors would inform the milkman to stop delivering three pints every morning, but has the milk bill been fully settled? What about the post office? Where should they direct the mail? What about electricity and gas (if they had any)? What about rent or mortgage payments? What happens to the house now? Is it to be left empty? So many questions... But of course these are all boring adult matters, and I doubt that young readers would care much!
Mr Galliano's Circus is a very pleasant read, with many subplots that come along one at a time for Jimmy to deal with. Several chapters are devoted to the Brown family's first few days on the road as the circus leaves town and heads to a new location. Then Jimmy has to deal with the first of many small challenges, in this case a sick dog that is "turning yellow." The circus folk believe the dog, Punch, will die, for they have seen the yellow fever take its course many times before. But Jimmy won't accept that and obtains an old herbal remedy from an old woman.
Mr Wally arrives soon after, with Sammy the chimpanzee. Sammy is a very clever chimp and Mr Wally has trained him to do all sorts of tricks, and Mr Galliano welcomes Mr Wally into the circus at once. Jimmy devotes a lot of time working with Sammy, adding this playtime to his many other helpful deeds around the circus. One day, Jimmy, as a reward for all his help, is given the chance to choose a new born puppy for himself, and he chooses an unlikely-looking one and names him Lucky. In actual fact, Lucky chose him with those big doggy eyes.
Lucky becomes Jimmy's best friend (along with Lotta). He starts teaching his clever little dog many tricks, with the hope of one day performing with Mr Wally in the ring. Then disaster strikes. Mr Wally, the only one of the circus folk with a car, buys himself a new one – and promptly crashes it. He breaks his leg and winds up in hospital, but Sammy, in the passenger seat, is so frightened he runs away. So begins the frantic rush to find Sammy, and once again Jimmy pulls through with the help of Lotta. Even better, Jimmy gets his first chance in the ring! He's so familiar with Mr Wally's act, and on such good terms with Sammy the chimpanzee, that he manages the entire act with ease. And Lucky gets in on the act too, bringing the tent down with her comic antics.
There's a disappointing blow for Jimmy when Mr Wally returns from the hospital. Grateful as Mr Wally is to Jimmy, he cannot allow the boy to come into the ring with him. Mr Wally maintains that Sammy is his and his alone, and he doesn't want to share his act. Mr Galliano respects his wishes, and Jimmy is furious and upset. But his mother calms him with some very well chosen words about this latest obstacle: "The best way to treat obstacles is to use them as stepping-stones. Laugh at them, tread on them, and let them lead you to something better." It's very sound advice indeed, and Jimmy repays Mr Wally's selfishness with nothing but a brave, smiling face. He continues as though nothing has happened, but resolves to teach Lucky more and more tricks so he, too, can have an act of his own...
And this is how Jimmy winds up in the ring with his own act, just him and his small dog. They're such a success that people come from afar to see them, and some bigwig from "the biggest circus in the world" offers to pay a lot of money for Jimmy and Lucky to come with him... but Jimmy refuses, preferring to stay with Mr Galliano.
There's even more to come after this. That's one of the things I liked about this book – the way circus life never stands still. A new act joins the circus, twin acrobats who are nasty to their dog and generally rude to everyone. Earlier there was also mention of obtaining some tigers, but that little deal fell flat (and caused Mr Galliano's hat to stand upright). Lotta's parents leave the circus for a temporary period and take their horses and act with them, and they are replaced with a similar act. So it's constant change, and this gives the feeling that these stories about Galliano's Circus could go on and on without tiring.
There's no proper end, and Blyton knows it. She switches from the usual past-present tense to present tense for the final couple of pages and it works well:
"And now, see, the circus is moving off once more! Here comes the very fine row of black horses..."
...and so on until the entire procession has trundled off down the street. The reader, who's been along for the entire ride, gets the distinct feeling he's been gently dropped off and must now watch as the circus moves away. If this were a movie, the audience would be lifting up above the street into the sky in one of those long crane-elevated shots...
"And we too must say good-bye; but if you hear of Mr Galliano's Circus coming to your town, go and see how Jimmy and Lotta and Lucky are getting on. Good luck, Mr Galliano!"