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.
A PLACE BETWEEN STATIONS
Ten short stories about African American characters across time, age and circumstance, from a New Haven schoolgirl unpuzzling the mystery of a neighborhood homeless woman who is not what she seems, to a 19th-century Catskill Mountain guide saddled with a small circus troupe and its incompetent manager on a journey none of them is prepared for.
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.