Today I’m doing something I’ve never done before: I’m reviewing a book on my website. I often enjoy mid-twentieth century memoirs, so when this opportunity came up, I decided to try it. I received a copy of the book for free in exchange for my review. I value my readers enough that I’ll be completely honest with my opinion.
First, the book’s synopsis (from goodreads): The only life little Sonja Francesco has ever known is traveling the carnival circuit and living with her five siblings in a tiny caravan home. The family never stays anywhere long enough for Sonja to make friends or develop roots. The only one in her family, Sonja always believed in God and wants to belong to a church.
At fourteen, Sonja meets the Mormon missionaries and develops a strong testimony of the truth of the Gospel. But can she live the commandments while traveling with the carnival and running one of the attractions every Sunday? Will it be possible for her to leave her family’s life behind and live the life she has always dreamed of?
This story is told as a series of flashbacks to Sonja’s childhood. Each chapter begins in the present, with Sonja and her mother, Magot, then changes to the past and paints a picture of Sonja’s early life. Sonja’s family lives in a caravan and travels from town to town to put up a merry-go-round and other carnival attractions for local festivals. Like many people in post-war Germany, the family struggles with poverty.
Margot, the mother, joined the circus during WWII to hide from the Nazis. I would have liked to know more about her history (I guess I’ll have to readWalk on a Wirewhen it comes out). I was curious how Sonja’s parents met, and about what made Margot lose her faith. She seemed to have liked the circus, but I guess living through WWII as a half-Jewish woman would have been traumatic enough, even if no one ever questioned her hiding place. Knowing more details might have helped me like Margot more than I did. As it was, Margot was a bit of a Scarlet O’Hara type character: beautiful, hardworking, and determined to survive, but not very kind. Margot didn’t ruin her sister’s lives (like Scarlet did), but she did call her children derogatory nicknames and had some marriage difficulties.
Sonja’s character was much more likeable. We’re introduced to a child who just wants to be a good girl. She wants her family to like her, but her family is under a lot of stress. She had a pet dog that helps her feel less lonely, and eventually begins to learn about God. Readers that love conversion stories will enjoy Sonja’s dream, her introduction to the missionaries through English classes, and her determination to join the church despite her parent’s disapproval.
Sonja gradually beings to yearn for a more normal life. She’d like a home—or at least an apartment. She’d like to make friends and keep them for more than a week or two. And she’d like to be able to attend church on Sunday instead of working at her parent’s carnival. Eventually she gets that, but it comes at the cost of a broken family, and that made me sad.
I’d classify this as a coming of age story and a conversion story. It’s a book I’ll remember, and I think it will give me extra encouragement to make sure my children know they are loved. It’s a good reminder that people can overcome hardships and still find joy with life. Don’t pick Carnival Girl up expecting it to read like a fast-paced novel. And for you history buffs, this book does take place during some interesting times (from the end of WWII to the early 60s), but global events are far in the background. Sonja’s family wasn’t involved in the cold war. But if you want a poignant read about a girl growing up in a different time with a very different lifestyle, you should give this book a chance.
Carnival Girl: Searching for God in the Aftermath of War
Published by Cedar Fort Books, 2012, 216 pages, available for purchase on Amazon.