The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Nine-year old Lilly Blackwood stood in the attic dormer of Blackwood Manor for what felt like the thousandth time, wishing the window would open so she could smell the outdoors. It had rained earlier and she wanted to if the outside air felt different than the inside air. She wondered if raindrops made everything feel soft and cool the way water did when she took a sponge bath.

If Momma knew Daddy let Lilly play in the other part of the attic while she was at church, Daddy would be in big trouble. Even bigger trouble than for teaching her how to read and giving her a cat on her third birthday.

Lilly put the cat on the bed and examined the scars on her fingers. Daddy was right, the lotion made them feel better. But oh, how the flame of Momma’s lantern had burned!

It was like God forgot to give her a color. Was that what made her a monster? Or was it something else?

“She’s still our daughter, Cora. Other than that one thing, she’s perfectly normal.”

“There’s nothing normal about what’s on the other side of that door,” Momma said, her voice cracking.

“I bet Momma will go to the circus,” Lilly said to her cat. “She doesn’t have to worry about people being afraid of her.”

Lilly had waited for this moment her entire life. But now, more than anything, she wanted to stay in the attic. She didn’t want to go outside. She didn’t want to go to the circus. Her chest grew tighter and tighter. She could barely breathe.

This was the moment she had imagined a thousand times, the moment she dreamed about nearly every night, the moment she thought would be the happiest of her life. But now, the idea that she was about to walk out of the house shocked her so badly she felt like she was about to float out of her body into the dark outside.

“Momma said I’m an abomination. She said I’d make everyone sick and scared, that’s why I had to hide.” Lilly’s voice trembled. “Because I’m a monster and I’m cursed.”

Lilly leaned forward and touched the mirror. Was it some kind of trick? But the girl in the mirror moved too, and their identical, pale fingers touched, tip to tip, on the glass. The color of their skin matched perfectly. But there was something else in her reflection too. Something that shook her to the core.

“Merrick sees something in you, Lilly. That’s why he bought you from your momma. He thinks he can make you a star. He thinks everyone is going to love you.”

“I don’t want to be a star,” Lilly cried. “I just want to go home to my cat.”

Julia’s eyes flooded. She was officially an orphan now. Her mother and father were gone. And yet, she grieved something else even more—a loving family. But how could you miss something you never had?

Julia stared at herself in the cracker mirror about the sink. How could she return to Blackwood Manor, with its bad memories and closely guarded secrets? Then again, how could she stay here?

Julia stared up at the estate, wondering what she would do with all that space. Would the rooms seem empty and quiet, or would they groan under the weight of bad memories?

Julia took a deep breath and touched the ring of keys, half expecting to hear Mother’s chiding voice warning her to leave them alone. But there was no voice, no electric shock, no scolding slap of an invisible, cold ghost hand.


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“Five Things”

A few interesting facts I learned while researching THE LIFE SHE WAS GIVEN.

  • Circus superstitions—goats on the lot bring good luck, peacock feathers bring bad luck, whistling in the dressing room brings bad luck, and a bird in the big top means death for a performer.
  • In the circus, all elephants, whether male or female, are called bulls. Although an elephant’s trunk is really huge, weighing about 400 pounds, it is so dexterous it can pick up very tiny things, including a single grain of rice.
  • Strolling circus vendors are called “Butchers” and they bring refreshments into the big top in a certain order. First wet, then dry. Dry food comes in first, like popcorn and cotton candy. Then, when everyone is good and thirsty, they bring in the wet (drinks). Candy apples aren’t brought in until the last few acts because it takes too long to eat the apples.
  • In July 1944, one of the most horrific accidents in American entertainment occurred. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus was in Hartford, Connecticut for an early afternoon show when a fire ripped through the paraffin-covered tent. It caused a stampede, which resulted in 168 deaths, including that of at least 67 children. It was a horrific tragedy in circus history, but it put a spotlight on some much-needed safety regulations.
  • All freak shows have fake acts, or gaffs, like Pickled Punks, which are strange once-alive objects, mostly human remains, in jars. (Hitchcock did an episode about this called The Jar.) P.T. Barnum created the Fiji mermaid by attaching a monkey’s skull to a fish’s body. There were also fake Siamese twins, and the most famous Siamese twin, Marguerite Clark, was actually a man with a rubber baby doll glued to his stomach.

2006, “The food items were sent into the big top in an order. That is dry first.

Why did you choose to set the book in this setting/time period?

Believe it or not, the idea started with the image of an old camera hidden inside a mansion. Then I imagined a little girl locked in the attic, which probably stemmed from my love of the book, FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC, and my fascination with stories about people hiding their “less than perfect” children in a back bedroom. After touching on a traveling circus and sideshow in my third novel, COAL RIVER, I wanted to explore that world further. And after reading about Daisy and Violet Hilton, Siamese twins who were kept in a cage, beaten, and passed down in their aunt’s estate like piece of old jewelry, I came up with the idea of a mother selling her daughter to the circus sideshow.  Once those things came together in my mind, the plot of the story quickly took shape. I chose the 1930’s because of the popularity of traveling circuses during that time. In the 1870’s, P.T. Barnum was one of the first showmen to take a collection of oddities and human marvels on the road. Back then, the sideshow created quite a sensation and became a popular form of entertainment. In the heyday of the sideshow, human curiosities were respected as the bread and butter of the circus, and revered all over the world.  The freaks were royalty, not victims or monsters. Certainly there was exploitation, as in the case of the Hilton sisters, but for the most part, the sideshow provided the opportunity for people who couldn’t make a living in the traditional ways to be independent, instead of slowly dying in institutions. Eventually the appeal of sideshows declined due to various factors, including increased medical knowledge, political correctness, and the belief that disease and abnormalities should evoke pity rather than wonder. But I think it’s intriguing and fun to imagine being part of what we envision as that bizarre, lurid world—a strange “secret” society filled with freaks, con men, and beautiful women who live by their own rules.

The story closely and compassionately follows the trials and travails of animals–elephants, horses.  Do you have a personal relationship to these kinds of animals? What led you to write about them?

I have lifelong love of all animals, and tremendous empathy when I see them suffering. Whenever one of those sad animal commercials come on, my husband immediately changes the channel because they always make me cry. As a child, I carried around an empty dog leash and curled up outside on a blanket with the neighbor’s dog because I didn’t have a pet of my own. (Luckily my parents took notice and adopted a beagle puppy) I first became aware of the plight of circus animals at eight years old, when my family attended a small circus in the Adirondacks. There was one lonesome-looking elephant named Rosie, and I remember her lifting a woman in red tights with her trunk, then spinning around in circles. Part of me wanted to be that woman more than anything, to be able to touch and be friends with that elephant. The other part of me felt an overwhelming sadness radiating from Rosie, and I started crying and had to leave. Much to my good fortune, I do have a personal relationship with horses. Growing up I always wanted my own horse, but I didn’t get one until I was thirty years old, a beautiful, black mare named Samantha. One horse quickly turned into seven, plus a few goats, chickens, rabbits, geese, ducks, cats, and numerous rescue dogs thrown in for good measure.


From acclaimed author Ellen Marie Wiseman comes a vivid, daring novel about the devastating power of family secrets—beginning in the poignant, lurid world of a Depression-era traveling circus and coming full circle in the transformative 1950s.

On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time—and sold to the circus sideshow.

More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.

At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction…until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.

Moving between Julia and Lilly’s stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.