B O O K S
TONIC AND BALM
It’s 1919, a time when traveling medicine shows can still find audiences eager to buy miracle “cures” and watch old-fashioned variety acts onstage. Tonic and Balm follows one such troupe, Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show, as it winds through Pennsylvania, struggling to stay afloat amidst internal discord and dwindling revenues.
Doc Bell’s show, which features both black and white performers, includes a song-and-dance team whose marriage is fraying, a sword-swallower and her charming but fickle lover, and a medical doctor in a downward spiral of alcoholism. Performers and crew alike are caught off-balance when Doc Bell takes on a new addition, a young woman with hydrocephaly, who finds herself cast into a dismaying role as a sideshow exhibit.
Set against a backdrop of rural poverty and a wave of anti-black violence, Tonic and Balm examines the tenuous solidarity and shifting alliances of people on the fringes of society.
Photo by Shala W. Graham
Stephanie’s first book, A Place between Stations: Stories, was a finalist for both the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in Debut Fiction and the AWP Award Series in Short Fiction. Her work has appeared in Potomac Review, Gargoyle, Massachusetts
Review, Crab Orchard Review and other journals, and in the anthology Enhanced Gravity: More Fiction by Washington Area Women. She's received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council and the Prince George's (MD) Arts and Humanities Council and taken part in the PEN/Faulkner Writers-in-Schools program in Washington, D.C. She teaches academic writing at the University of Maryland.
Interview at Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb.
Interview by Ann Beman for the museum of americana.
Thursday, October 3, 2019, 7:00 pm
Author panel with Susan Holloway Scott and Maureen Joyce Connolly for National Reading Group Month, sponsored by the Women's National Book Association, at Towne Book Center and Wine Bar, Collegeville, PA.
Saturday, September 14, 2019, 4:00 pm
Panel discussion with Tyrese Coleman, Philip Dean Walker and Caroline Bock on publishing with an independent press at the Publish Now seminar, the Writer's Center, Bethesda, MD.
Saturday, August 24, 2019
Reading at the Community Open House for A Tree Grows at BookPlace, Washington, D.C.
Sunday, July 28, 2019
Reading with Tara Campbell and Claudia Gary at Reston Readings, Reston Used Book Store, Reston, VA.
Thursday, June 27, 2019
Reading at The Writer's Center Live! literary variety show featuring readings, live music and more at the Writer's Center, Bethesda, MD.
Tuesday, March 19, 2019
Reading at the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, VA.
April 14, 2018
Panel discussion on short fiction with Timmy Reed and Ho Lin at the 15th annual CityLit Festival, University of Baltimore.
June 19, 2016
Potomac Review launch party and reading, the Writer's Center, Bethesda, MD.
R E S O U R C E S
READING GROUP GUIDE
See the Reading Group Guide for a list of discussion questions for Tonic and Balm.
ABOUT MEDICINE SHOWS
Traveling medicine shows like the one that forms the setting of Tonic and Balm once flourished in rural America. These shows were a unique form of popular entertainment that combined elements of the circus, vaudeville, minstrelsy, Wild West shows and more. Owners of the shows used their acts to attract audiences to whom they could sell patent medicines, typically useless and sometimes dangerous "treatments" or "cures" for common ailments. Eventually competition from radio and movies, along with a series of federal food and drug laws, combined to drive medicine shows into extinction. This overview of the rise and fall of medicine shows draws from the first chapter of NYU performance studies scholar Brooks McNamara's Step Right Up (Doubleday, 1975, 1976; University of Mississippi Press, 1995), an excellent introduction to the history and culture of medicine shows.
FIND OUT MORE
The Smithsonian's Balm of America chronicles the history of the patent medicine industry and includes a photo gallery of once-popular balms, bitters, syrups and salves. Alcohol, opium, heroin and cocaine were common ingredients in patent medicines well into the twentieth century.
The New England Historical Society offers this page about the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, one of the largest and most successful of the traveling medicine show operations. Medicine shows often used racial and ethnic stereotypes in their advertising and performances.
Old Hat Records' Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926 - 1937, a two-disc set of recordings by medicine show performers, contains music ranging from novelty songs to blues numbers. The site has extensive liner notes and includes a sound sample for each of the forty-eight songs on the discs.