Sawdust in His Shoes
By Eloise Jarvis McGraw
Paperback, 282 pages
2018, Plough Publishing
I won a copy of this book from LibraryThing in exchange for my honest review.
Joe Lang grew up in the circus, starring in bareback riding shows since he was a boy and gaining popularity by age fifteen. But when he’s orphaned after a terrible accident, Joe finds himself in a vocational school while he waits for a judge to decide his fate. Not one to sit around and wait, Joe escapes and ends up on the farm of the Dawson family. He intends only to stay a few days and reveals nothing about his past, but as time goes on, he starts to feel comfortable. Can he be truly happy away from the circus?
I didn’t know until after finishing this book that it was actually written in 1950; that explains the authenticity, but it doesn’t feel dry like some older texts have the tendency to do (at least for me).
When I threw my name in the hat for this book, I was looking for a change of pace. Y’all know I love me some middle-grade and I usually drift towards the fantastical. It was time to dip into something a little different.
I obviously didn’t grow up in the 50s (or whenever this book was set – maybe it was earlier, I’m not sure), but the language and tone of the book felt realistic. There’s even a glossary in the back, “Talk of the Big Top”, which helpfully explains some of the terms like candy butcher (not as grim as it sounds), gillie and windjammers.
Joe Lang is as authentic as the vocabulary throughout the book. He’s tenacious, driven and earnest and I loved every minute of his journey. He’s ripped away from his life in the circus after tragedy strikes and in the blink of an eye he’s taken away from his longtime friend and father-figure, Moe Shapley, delivered to a horrible vocational school, and on the run in hopes of getting back to the circus. He finds himself at the Dawson farm and only intends on staying a few days until he can figure out a plan. I felt for Joe, understood his longing to get back to the circus, which was the only home he knew. Adding to his longing was his missed opportunity for a chance at a solo show thanks to his rising fame as a performer.
The Dawsons are a likeable family. Pop Dawson is patient and understanding, never doubting Joe’s motives, despite how cagey he is at first. The Dawson children are in awe of Joe, instantly taking a liking to him. I was glad there was no petty jealousy among the children. I’m so over the “let’s be mean to the new kid” trope. (Not that it’s not present in some form in the book, but it comes from minor characters.) Only Ma Dawson is skeptical of the quiet, brooding boy. But Joe is good with her children and hardworking. The development of Joe and Mrs. Dawson’s relationship over time is gratifying.
Joe’s inner turmoil over longing to be back at the circus and finding himself content with farm life, his maturity as the story progresses, and his charm really drives the story. Much like Joe, I found myself wanting him to stay with the Dawsons, but also wanting him to achieve his goal of a solo show in the circus and reunite with Moe.
I devoured most of this book in one sitting. I (clearly) loved Joe and the focus on found family. Sawdust in His Shoes surprised me; it was funny, uplifting, tense and rewarding!
I recommend this if:
+ You’re looking for a realistic, historical middle-grade
+ You like heartwarming, found family stories
+ You want a protagonist from the circus
Bonus pictures because the chapter headers have circus-themed images: