In 1911, at her father’s unexpected death, Europe’s strongest woman Mabel MacGinnis loses everything she’s ever known and sets off for America in hope of finding the mother she’s just discovered is still alive. When aerialist Isabella Moreau’s daughter suddenly appears, she is forced to face the truth of where, and in what, she derives her worth.
Welcome to Novel PASTimes! We are pleased you stopped by today.
Tell us something about where you live.
That’s a little difficult to answer as I don’t live in any one place, unless you count the tents that go up and come down regularly. Or the train I sleep in as it shuttles us to another place. I live in the dreams of children, as they are tucked in at night after a day at the circus. And I live in the papers as someone to be ogled, prodded, and studied. Mostly, though, I live in between what is acceptable and what is not.
What is your favorite memory?
Our circus wintered in Bologna, Italy. We spent most of the year traveling all over Europe, but come the cold weather, we would settle into a more normal life. During the day, there was practice—always practice—but as the sun set over those ancient bricks, Maman, Papa, and I would sit beside the deep well of window in our apartment eating sardines and piadina and squacquerone. Papa would sing Scottish ballads as Maman and I danced, our feet pounding the old stone floor. Maman would laugh then, her hair floating as she spun me round and round. I remember her laugh. It was such a rare thing to hear.
Do you have an occupation? What do you like or dislike about your work?
I am a circus strongwoman, though not a very good one anymore. I was once Europe’s strongest, but then my father (whom I’d worked with for years) died, and nerves got the best of me. There isn’t much a strongwoman who grew up in the circus and is no longer strong can do. So now I’m traveling across the world to try and find my mother, who I’ve just discovered may not be dead after all. I enjoyed most things about being in the circus—it’s a family of sorts, which comes with a lot of good and a bit of bad—and it feels safe. Familiar. I’m not sure what I’ll do now that I’ve humiliated myself publicly. Perhaps I’ll become a shop girl. I do love fashion. But I know, deep down, the only place I’ll ever really belong is in the ring.
Who are the special people in your life?
Before I left Manzo Brothers Circus, I would have said Jake Cunningham, as well as the clown, Lorenzo; sisters Imilia and Giulia Manzo; and Alyona, an equestrian—all of them players in the circus. But then I learned they had been keeping the truth from me for years, and I left for New York. I would have felt very alone save for Jake, who traveled with me. When we arrived here, I met a child named Katie Grace who lost her father not long ago. She’s a wild thing and perhaps too smart for her own good. Through her I met her mother, Alice, who is kind and gentle and good. Those two have become dear to me and I feel, once more, surrounded by love.
What is your heart’s deepest desire?
I could say all manner of deep and insightful things here, but my deepest desire is for Jake to notice me in a romantic way. I’m not sure he ever will—he’s still entirely in love with his wife, who died years and years ago, and I am so different from her—but I know Jake. And I know that he deserves to be happy. He deserves to feel safe in love. I can give him that. But I’m afraid he will only ever view me as something of a little sister, which is ironic given I stand inches over him.
What are you most afraid of?
I was always most afraid of failure—specifically failing to measure up to my father’s expectations. He raised me to be strong and capable. To need no one else in my bid for success. He was larger than life and beloved. He left a horrifying childhood to make a name for himself as the world’s strongest man, and he trained me, poured into me, for years. And then, one day, I dropped someone during a lift, and everyone realized all my accomplishments were built on shifting sand. My father had propped me up for years, and I became nothing more than that moment of failure. Since I’ve faced that fear, I’m now afraid I won’t find my mother. Because without her, and once Jake moves back home to his family ranch, I will truly be alone in this world.
Do you have a cherished possession?
My most cherished possession was a doll my grandmother sent to us from New York when I was a small child. It had belonged to her when she was a girl and traveled from France to the United States. The doll’s name was Isabella, and she went everywhere with me. Even when I was going on stage, my mother would tuck her into my sleeve and tell me it was for courage. When I was young, my mother traveled to America to take care of my grandmother, and I gave her Isabella “for courage” because she seemed so afraid of something. I miss Isabella sometimes, and I wonder if I had her back, would she have given me the courage to push through my fears after my father died, and I was facing life without him?
What is your favorite thing about New York City?
I’ve spent most of my life in ancient European cities and small towns. There’s something wonderfully brash about New York City. It’s new and changeable, and everyone is on the way somewhere. It feels like a place where you can reinvent yourself. Become anyone you wish to be. And the circus is a big deal here. Travis and Wells kicks off their season at Madison Square Garden for six weeks every year. There are parades and parties and interview and big shows. Someone can go from being completely unknown to a star in a matter of weeks. The best thing about New York, though, is that no one knows me as Bram MacGinnis’s daughter. They have no expectation of what I can do because of what he did.
What have you learned about yourself in the course of your story?
I’ve learned that there are many, many ways to be strong, and the least important is physical. Jake has shown me there is strength in loyalty. My mother has demonstrated strength in vulnerability (does that sound like an oxymoron? It takes immense strength to open yourself up to others when you’re all but certain of rejection). And I’ve learned that my strength isn’t bound up in other people—I am fully capable of doing what I’ve been created to do—but it also isn’t a weakness to lean on those you love.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I’m tall. I know that sounds like a silly thing to come straight out and say, but when I first meet someone, they are often startled by my height and size, so I just thought I’d get that out of the way. Despite my work, I don’t like being stared at. I certainly don’t enjoy being poked and prodded, which people seem to do without thought. I want to be known for more than my height, yet it always seems as though that’s what people focus on. Also, the man I love is shorter than me. Yes, it’s unconventional. No, he’s not threatened by me. Not even when we wrestle, and I trounce him. In fact . . . I think he may enjoy it.
Thanks for allowing us to get know you a little better!
Kimberly Duffy is a Long Island native currently living in southwest Ohio. When she’s not homeschooling her four kids, she writes historical fiction that takes her readers back in time and across oceans. She loves trips that require a passport, recipe books, and practicing kissing scenes with her husband of twenty-three years. He doesn’t mind. Learn more at kimberlyduffy.com