White River Red

Written by Becky Marietta
Review by Mary Lawrence

In 1972, Betty McLaughlin is bored writing obituaries for the Springdale Times. An aspiring journalist, Betty musters her courage to ask her editor if she could have a new assignment. Murray obliges by giving her a lead about an elderly tightrope walker living in a nursing home facility in Fayetteville. If Betty proves herself an able writer, the story will be a Sunday feature.

Forrestina Campbell, aka White River Red, ran away from home at the age of 15 to join a circus. In 1909, she catches up to Ringling Brothers and is signed on as a ballet girl, but her real desire is to be an aerialist—a tightrope walker. What follows is a fictionalized account of Forrestina’s life as told to Betty.

Based on the real Forrestina Campbell, Marietta recounts Red’s ascent to becoming a star tightrope walker, a fall that results in her dismissal from the famous circus, two tumultuous relationships with alcoholic lovers, a run as a carnie worker using trained rats, and lastly, Campbell’s generosity toward others. Such material could have made for an exceptional telling; however, Marietta’s writing does not fully capitalize on Forrestina Campbell’s life or even the gritty backdrop of the Depression. A lack of emotional tension and shallow characterizations fail to elevate this novel beyond a serviceable account of a woman’s life. It is a pleasant story, simply written.