I’ve enjoyed all of Zimmer’s previous books for young readers, which were written in verse. So I was very curious to read her first novel written in prose. Not surprisingly, her poetic use of language carries through to this novel as well. Her words just have a certain flow to them. The book is written in first person from the perspective of twelve-year-old Owen, and as I was reading I could just hear his voice in my head.
The story starts in Pittsburgh during the 1850s. Owen and his younger brother Zach have been put in an orphanage by their mother after she can no longer afford to take care of them. When the brothers are placed on an orphan train headed west, Owen decides to send Zach on his own because it is more likely that a family will take in the younger boy if he is alone. Zach’s escape from the train sets off a chain of events that ends with Owen taking a job on board a circus barge called the River Palace.
Owen sets sail with the circus as it makes its way south to New Orleans, making stops to put on shows along the way. Unfortunately, Owen rarely gets to see the shows himself, since he spends most of his time cleaning up after and feeding the various animals who entertain the crowds. When reading the novel it’s apparent that Zimmer really did her research before writing. There is a wealth of detail throughout the book, from the description of the circus barge to the historical accuracy. Many relevant issues of the day are touched on including slavery, poverty, and disease. Because Owen encounters each of these in a personal way, the story has a stronger impact. For example, Owen serves as an assistant to a black man named Solomon who has bought his own freedom and learns about the pain of slavery directly from him.
Yet, even though historical detail is woven into every part of the book, the story remains the important thing, and the action never wanes. Zimmer keeps the pace up, and I read this book within a few hours because I wanted to know what would become of Owen and whether he would even survive these adventures.
I think The Floating Circus is a great historical novel for upper elementary and middle school readers, and I hope Ms. Zimmer will write more prose novels!