I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
— John 15:1–2
“It’s the best story in town, but nobody’s been able to get it.” This was the secret confided to Beth Macy in 1989 by a photographer during her early days as a reporter at the Roanoke Times. To uncover the truth would take hundreds of interviews and decades of research, but after more than 25 years of effort, Macy is finally able to offer an authoritative account in Truevine: Two Brothers, A Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South.
The story itself is almost too odd to be real. People who hadn’t heard it before couldn’t believe it and the people who knew it were hesitant to tell. “Are you sure you want to hear this?” they would ask Macy during interviews. Although once well-known to locals, the tale had been largely forgotten over the years and, in many ways, actively suppressed.
So, here it goes: In 1899 in the town of Truevine, Virginia, there lived two boys, George and Willie Muse, born into a sharecropping family. They also happened to be black albinos and their pale skin and yellow hair was unlike anything the town had seen before. One day, a white man comes offering them candy and — you can see where this is going. Once kidnapped, the boys were then enlisted as circus freaks and carted around the world to be displayed as bizarre beasts.
The Muse brothers headlined dozens of sold out shows and even performed for royalty at Buckingham Palace. They were superstars in an era before television or the internet and people travelled from all over to see them. The source of their wild popularity was their unusual skin pigment and the outlandish caricatures they were forced to assume: first as Ecuadorian cannibals named Eko and Iko, then as “sheep-headed” freaks, then later “Ambassadors from Mars.” All the while, their mother, Harriett Muse, never accepted that they were really gone and spent nearly 28 years trying to get the boys back.
Beth Macy specializes in the untold stories of underdogs. Her previous book, Factory Man, was a New York Times bestseller, chronicling the story of John Bassett III as he battled the tides of globalization to save his furniture company, hundreds of jobs, and a small Virginia town in the process. Truevine continues her legacy of attraction to unlikely heroes, turning the spotlight on Harriett Muse and her relentless quest to bring her boys home.
One of the key goals of Truevine, as illustrated in Macy’s lush imagery, was to recreate the day-to-day reality of life in the Jim Crow South. As Macy explained, “Jim Crow was so much more than separate water fountains and separate schools.” Thus her narrative moves beyond mere historical facts and instead provides an intimate look at those common, yet cringeworthy, details of everyday life. For Macy, it was tantamount to have the reader experience “what it smelled like and what if felt like and the little girls that walk by the house with the parrot that was trained to squawk racial epithets.”
During the quarter century that it took to research this story, she found that those little details were difficult to unearth. “I would’ve loved a trove of letters that explained what life was like in those times,” Macy said. “That would’ve made it so much easier.” After some time and struggle, one of her friends recommended she turn Truevine into a novel “based on true events,” but Macy resisted the urge and continued forward through muddy archives and loose leads. Even census data was of little help, with enslaved ancestors omitted from official records and frequent “Mews” misspellings.
The surviving family members weren’t much help either. Scarred by lifetimes of ridicule over the subject, relatives turned inward. Details of the story were kept quiet and access to Willie Muse, who was still alive at the time, was out of the question. The key sentinel guarding the gates was Nancy Saunders, the great-niece of Willie Muse. As Macy described her, “She was lovely and she was tough.” Saunders owned the Goody Shop, a soul food institution in Roanoke. It’s a place where the menu never changes, but isn’t printed anywhere. Apparently, “You just have to know what you want.” Macy worked to build a relationship with Saunders, even writing a feature article on the Goody Shop to earn her goodwill. But after Macy found that she was discovering very little in terms of specifics, photographs, or even contextual clues, Saunders scoffed, “You think we’re just going to roll over and give you this story.”
Turning to newspaper clippings, Macy was able to piece together historical accounts of the boys and what she found was disheartening. Reading the news coverage of them “explained Nancy’s toughness to me,” said Macy. The boys’ mother, Harriett Muse, the one who spent decades fighting for their release, was frequently mocked in the articles. Reporters made a habit of falsifying her quotes, even adding a dumbed-down dialect to them. Racist cartoons were drawn about the boys and everyone in the media assumed that they were mentally inept. In 1928, the New York Times ran a piece that the brothers were back in the circus with their mother’s blessing, but failed to address the decades when they were there without it.
It’s been said that history is the record of privileged people. Truevine is an effort to correct this deficiency. “Just the knowing of these stories is a place to begin with,” said Macy. In today’s environment where racial tensions are bringing communities to the breaking point, a lot can be said for the values of understanding, empathy, and hope. In that regard, Nancy Saunders did finally give her blessing for the book with one condition: “I’ll let you do the story as long as you show that he came out on top.” Willie Muse, who lived to be 108, was eventually able to find peace in his community and when he passed in 2001, he was surrounded by a supportive circle of friends and loved ones. As faithfully documented by Macy, the true vine had found its way.
The Truevine book launches on October 18. Beth Macy will host promotional events in Virginia this month at the Roanoke Barnes & Noble on Oct. 23, Ferrum College on Oct. 25, New Dominion Bookshop in Charlottesville on Oct. 28, and the Jacksonville Center for the Arts in Floyd on Oct. 30. For details, visit her website at intrepidpapergirl.com.