Reads for the Rest of Us

A Cure for What Ails You

A Review of Stephanie Allen’s Tonic and Balm

Karla Strand
Dec 20, 2019 · 6 min read
Photo by Matt Briney of many glass medicine bottles lined up across three shelves.
Photo by Matt Briney of many glass medicine bottles lined up across three shelves.
Photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

Tonic and Balm is a book about medicine shows.

The thing about medicine shows is that they are different from circuses, carnivals, or “freak shows.” I had never really thought about them before reading this book.

When I think of the circus I think of those poor animals being caged and taught how to do stupid human tricks — why do some find it so adorable or hilarious to make wild animals do human things? — so I don’t think much of the circus at all.

When I think of “freak shows” or sideshows I think of American Horror Story — did you watch that season? I feel bad about the curiosity the show aroused in me — it must be offensive to some people.

Carnivals can be fun but there’s something about them, like sideshows, that intrigue and frighten us. I mean, have you seen Jordan Peele’s film Us?!

But medicine shows? Who thinks about medicine shows? Well, Stephanie Allen does.

While doing research on circuses for a short story, Allen came across some history on medicine shows that she found quite interesting. So interesting, in fact, that she wrote her debut novel about one.

A writing professor at the University of Maryland, Stephanie Allen’s short stories have appeared in a wide variety of journals and in the anthology Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women. Her book of short stories, A Place Between Stations, was a Hurston/Wright Award finalist.

And Allen certainly did her homework when constructing this historical novel.

Set in 1919, Tonic and Balm is the story of Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show. The book presents voices that are rarely heard — that of a traveling band of misfits — that are as different from one another as they are from their audiences. Each character tells us their story; some are hurried and impatient, while others are tentative or skittish. We experience their fear, sadness, or anger but also their solidarity as they come together for a common cause: the show.

Doc Bell is the white pitchman and proprietor of the traveling show. Doc’s right-hand man, Felix Conger, holds it all together and is the one who’s stuck with Doc for over a decade. The troupe is written to be representative of some of the later medicine shows that included both white and Black performers.

Of the Black performers in these shows, some tapped, some played in brass or jug bands, and others did comedy, at times adopting the minstrelsy of the white men before them who performed in “blackface”. There were few Black pitchmen, though; more often Black pitchmen traveled solo or worked with a white counterpart. There were white pitchmen who hired all Black troupes to travel the American South and perform for Black audiences but mostly, the medicine shows performed for poor, rural, white audiences.

There were also troupes who appropriated Native American cultures to capitalize on the stereotypes of exoticism and wisdom that surrounded them. One such troupe was called the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. Located far from any actual Indian country in New Haven, CT, Kickapoo was one of the most successful traveling medicine shows in the US.

Doc Bell’s show, like all medicine shows, was designed to sell “miracle cures” for everything from rheumatism to toothaches to snake bites. This is what sets them apart from circuses and other traveling shows. While an entrance fee was charged for a carnival or circus, the medicine show offered free entertainment after which a sales pitch was presented, which most attendees felt the obligation to sit through. If the pitchman did his job well, he would titillate the audience into purchasing.

With enough profit from his snake oil sales, Doc Bell could pay the performers, have a drink, and move on to the next city to start all over again.

Acts in medicine shows like Doc Bell’s ran the gamut. Allen introduces the characters much like the show itself, one after the other, in their own voices, as a variety of acts. There’s a sadness that hangs over them as they are all deemed misfits, freaks, outsiders. There is the husband and wife duo who find it hard not to bring their differences to the stage. There are the acrobats, a trick shooter, and a lesbian sword swallower. The main characters each have their own chapter with the glaring exception of Doc Bell himself.

The main attraction Bell uses to draw in his unsuspecting crowd is Sheba, Queen of the Nile. Her real name is Miss Antoinette and she suffers from hydrocephaly. Also referred to as hydrocephalus or water on the brain, hydrocephaly causes an enlarged head and debilitating headaches. Miss Antoinette wears a turban and large hat when not being ogled by spectators at the show. Bell plays upon the ignorance and fears of his attendees to sell his tonic that will ensure they won’t end up like her. He does get her a doctor to help treat her pain but only because he can’t let his star attraction slip away.

As the story unfolds, the reader is drawn into this underground world of outsiders. We sympathize with the performers as they befriend one another and exhibit solidarity in the midst of the difficulties that accompany being in a traveling show in impoverished areas rife with racial segregation. Indeed, Black performers during this time were denied access to public places and subject to threats or violence; Allen adeptly uses the story of Doc Bell’s traveling medicine show to challenge notions of race, gender, and sexuality.

The show allows these outcasts to find one another, to find purpose and hope. To some degree, they feel a responsibility to the show and, even more so, to one another, so they work to keep it and themselves going. But throughout the book, they deal with instability, deconstruction, and abandonment. Impermanence is a prevalent theme, with the troupe constantly traveling town to town, performers coming and going, and facing the unpredictable omnipresent threats of racial and gendered violence.

They must face that inevitably Doc Bell’s show itself will end, as traveling medicine shows dwindled in popularity with the ubiquity of radio and moving pictures and the growing oversight of medicines by the FDA.

In Tonic and Balm, Stephanie Allen uses her distinct voice to remind us that humanity is a tie that binds despite physical appearances, backgrounds, or flaws. The performers develop alliances imperative to those living on the fringes and the show gives them some semblance of structure and expectation. While not pedantic in its delivery, Allen delivers subtle, nuanced examinations of race, gender, and difference — as well as solidarity and resistance — that will resonate with readers today.

Tonic and Balm would be a good fit for those who enjoy historical fiction, such as Washington Black by Esi Edugyan. It is available from Shade Mountain Press, a publisher that specializes in literature by women, especially those who have been historically underrepresented.

Karla Strand

Written by

Librarian, book reviewer, freelance writer: Ms. Mag, Pulp Mag, The Startup, Fearless She Wrote. Views only mine.

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