Tonic and Balm

Written by Stephanie Allen
Review by Jo Ann Butler

In 1919 medicine shows have lost their popularity, but Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show is still hanging on by a shoestring. The ever-changing assortment of entertainers travels from one rural Pennsylvania town to the next, staging acts from song and dance and acrobatics to sword-swallowing. After a sufficient crowd fills the seats, Doc Bell peddles alcohol-laced “miracle cures” to gullible buyers. Oscar Sauer (an actual doctor) oversees the sales to weed out the truly ill and refer them for authentic medical help—when he isn’t dreaming of his next bottle of whiskey.

Stephanie Allen’s Tonic and Balm presents fortunate readers with a fascinating look at the itinerant troupe and their hardscrabble world. Black, white, hetero, gay—about the only thing the performers share in common is their poverty, a trait which also marks their audiences. The troupers form shifting relationships, haze newcomers, punish the lazy or stubborn, and sullenly look after Antoinette, a young woman deformed by hydrocephaly, who is taken from a home for “incurable children,” only to be pressed into service as a sideshow freak.

Ms. Allen’s performers narrate chapters in turn, providing cross-hatched character studies which I particularly enjoyed. However, we never hear from Doc Bell himself, that charlatan who knowingly sells useless remedies and exploits the desperation of his poverty-stricken minions, and I would have enjoyed that too. However, Ms. Allen’s cast of performers is so diverse and complex that I don’t mind the omission—let Doc Bell keep his secrets. Highly recommended.