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Book Report: Sights and sounds under the big top

When I was a kid one of the biggest deals of the year was when the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus came to town.

It was a mid-sized circus, nothing like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, which always stopped in Eau Claire. But it always featured 20 elephants and made sure we high school students knew we were finally growing up.

That's because when the show came to town, boys were dismissed from high school to help put up the three-ring big top, for which we were given free passes and a mammoth breakfast at the mess tent, along with the real circus hands.

So it was with excitement that I opened a beautiful new book, "The American Circus," edited by Susan Weber, Kenneth Ames, and Matthew Wittmann (Yale University Press, n.p.)

It's a fascinating look at the development of the circus in the U.S. with 17 essays ranging in topics from how our circus culture differed from Europe's, chapters on circus posters in startling colors, a remembrance of the circus's parade down main streets all over the U.S.

I learned about circus companies who never made it to western Wisconsin, like Forepaugh's, and ones that had, like The Cole Brothers.

I learned that even F.D.R.'s WPA got into the act during the depression and operated a federally funded circus in New York City for four years.

I hoped to read about the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus, but only found one reference to the Miller Brothers, which went under in the Depression and was apparently taken over by Al G. Kelly.

(I met his descendent about 20 years ago, when the circus of my youth came to Little Falls, Minn., and I was assigned to do a story for the Minneapolis Tribune. I'm happy to report that it still featured 20 elephants, but had discontinued its "midway" because Mr. Kelley told me he was sick of fielding complaints about "lewd sideshows" and didn't want to have to deal with a different sheriff in every town.)

In my years as a book reviewer I've perused hundreds of important and interesting books published by Lerner Publications of Minneapolis, especially from its Carolrhoda imprint, but one of its latest is the best, most impressive I've run across.

It's directed at the eight to 18-year old reader, but this 76-year-old was fascinated from cover to cover of "Their Skeletons Speak: Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World (Carol Rhoda, $22.95.)

Authors Sally M. Walker, award-winning young people's writer and Douglas W. Owsley, head of Smithsonian's Natural History anthropology department, have written a fascinating study of the discovery of Washington State's "Kennewick Man," age 9,500, and his older predecessors, Spirit Cave Man, et al.

The discoveries are fascinating in themselves, but when Walker and Owsley explain how these old bones speak to us today, telling us what they ate, how they comported themselves, what their hopes and fears might have been is when this book soars.

It's beautifully mounted on quality paper and full of color. At $22.95 it's a steal for readers of any age.

In "Fifteen Tales of Murder, Mayhem and Malice from the Land of Minnesota Nice" (Nodin Press, $16 paper.), Minnesota's irrepressible National Book Award winner Pete Hautman writes an introduction of a set of stories by a local group called "The Minnesota Crime Wave."

Hautman captures the essence of the book in his prefatory comments about 'Minnesota Nice:'

"Not that we (Minnesotans) have an exclusive on bad behavior -- Wisconsin has several legs up on the whole cannibal thing -- but there is a sort of North Dakota-meets-Iowa smiling bleakness available here in Minnesota that manifests itself as suppressed rage.

"Cut somebody off in traffic and you won't get road rage, you will get the 'Minnesota Look' -- the face of a cat depositing a nuisance on your pillow. For those unversed in the silent language of 'The Look,' allow me to translate: I kill you with my thoughts."

There follows 15 delightful stories about murder and mayhem from authors like William Kent Krueger, Ellen Hart and David Housewright and a cute little number by Pat Dennis titled "Minnesota Iced" (think fishing through a little hole drilled in a lake full of ice.)

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.