Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the Circus

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Stephanie Owen Reeder, Marvellous Miss May: Queen of the CircusNational Library of Australia Publishing, Feb 2018,  136pp., $24.99 (hbk), ISBN: 9781642279156

A fascinating look at the true life story of one of Australia’s forgotten circus stars, May Zinga, from Bundaberg, who performed with the Wirth Brothers Circus in Australia, and later was a star of Ringlings and Barnum and Baileys Circus in New York. Beautifully designed with a simple primary colour scheme and vintage images on almost every page, this book is packed with facts, images and information about the circus. Many vintage photos of Miss May, as well as photos, postcards and posters of the time illustrate the intriguing story.

The primary chapters tell Miss May’s story, beginning with a dreadful accident she had as an adult performer, then going back to her youth and moving forward through time to tell of her early years and later fame as a bareback rider. Between each story chapter is a factual section which offers fascinating insights on different aspects of circus life in Australia in the early years of the twentieth century. Chapters include the history of the circus, children and the circus, the wonderful Wirth’s circus, travelling with the circus, animals in the circus and performing in the circus. A glossary at the end includes key terms found throughout the book.

Sadly May Wirth is largely forgotten in Australia. Born into a circus family, she began busking from an early age and was performing as a contortionist and acrobat in the circus from the age of 6. When she was 7 her mother took the children and began a new life away from the circus, and from their angry and perfectionist father, but a short time later her mother, unable to cope, allowed May to be adopted into the Wirth family, Australian circus royalty, and she began touring Australia and New Zealand. At the age of ten she trained to become a bareback horse rider, becoming the only female able to do a forward somersault on a moving horse. She was invited to audition for Ringling and Barnum and Bailey circus in New York at the age of 16 and performed with them for 2 years until her accident. However, four months later she returned to performing and met with huge success. Making her home in America, she performed for Presidents and Kings. At the age of 84, she became one of only three Australians inducted into the American Circus Hall of Fame and her costumes are still exhibited in Florida.

Marvellous Miss May is a wonderful story about an Australian heroine who deserves to be remembered. It provides intriguing insights into the early days of Australian circuses, and how important this sort of entertainment was at the time.

Teachers’ Notes are available on the New South Books website.

Reviewed by Rachel Le Rossignol

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