Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

by Robert Hough

“One of the most rollicking, good-time books of the year. . . . This masterful book is the complete package: great storytelling, a keen eye for detail, delightful turns of phrase, and a sense of humor and timing.” –Virginia Holman, USA Today

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 448
  • Publication Date March 18, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4043-2
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $13.00

About The Book

Mabel Stark was the greatest female tiger trainer in history. In the 1910s and ’20s, during the golden age of the big top, she was the superstar of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, and one of America’s most eccentric celebrities. A tiny, curvaceous Kentucky blonde in a white leather bodysuit, Mabel was brazen, sexually adventurous, and suicidally courageous. The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is Robert Hough’s brilliant, wit-studded novel of her fantastic life.

It is 1968. Mabel, nursing her most serious mauling yet, is just turning eighty and about to lose her job at Jungleland, a California game park. Devastated by the loss of her cats, she looks back on her life and her five husbands: the fifth–a cross-dresser whom she married without bothering to divorce the other four–would one day be tragically mauled by her one true love, her ferocious yet amorous 550-pound Bengal tiger, Rajah.

Starting with her escape from a mental institution to begin her circus career as a burlesque dancer, Mabel’s exquisitely voiced confession is a live wire of dark secrets, broken dreams, and comic escapades. It is a brilliant, exhilarating story of an America before television and movies, when the spectacle of the circus reigned and an unlikely woman captured the public imagination with her singular charm and audacity.

Tags Literary


“[The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is] a book that does, indeed, sneak up and surprise you with its subtle beauty.” –Dan Cryer, The San Francisco Chronicle

“One of the most rollicking, good-time books of the year. . . . This masterful book is the complete package: great storytelling, a keen eye for detail, delightful turns of phrase, and a sense of humor and timing.” –Virginia Holman, USA Today

“Hough packs his sprawling novel with fascinating details that leave you wondering what’s true and what’s imagination.” –Jody Jaffe, The Baltimore Sun

“Rollicking. . . . Hough dutifully traces the peaks and valleys of Mabel’s remarkable life. . . . Mabel’s tale is sprinkled with bits of fascinating circus lore.”
–Jenny Offill, The Washington Post

“[Mabel’s] life and opinions . . . are hilariously and touchingly re-created in this extravagantly entertaining tale. . . . Hough makes you feel the deadly excitement of how an itinerant circus takes over its venues and he creates a vivid sensory picture of the Ringling Circus’s variety, energy, and truculent personality clashes. Best of all, he has reawakened the spirit of Mabel Stark, a forgotten woman who’s not likely to be forgotten again soon. The most appropriate tribute one can pay to her and [her] rambunctious book that celebrates her exploits is to say that reading it is more fun than going to the circus.” –Bruce Allen, The Boston Globe

“Narrating with a saucy, bouncy verve, [Mabel Stark] recounts a life story that is one part John Irving, two parts blue movie. Cats likely saved Mabel from a harsh life of poverty and degradation.” –John Freeman, Time Out New York

“Engaging. . . . Though this is historical fiction . . . the truth Hough (and to some extent his heroine) finally uncovers is timeless. . . . [Mabel is] a woman of her times who tried her best to rise above the tragedies of her youth and did so with style for much of her glorious, courageous life.” –Clea Simon, The Boston Phoenix

“Mabel Stark developed an act so original, so daring, so brave, that it puts all the stupid human tricks on today’s reality shows to shame. . . .Makes Siegfried and Roy’s Las Vegas cat extravaganza comparable to teasing kittens with yarn. . . .Hough has constructed a captivating portrait of a woman and a way of life that no longer exist.” –Regis Behe, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

“Utterly human. . . . The novel’s real strength lies not in the spectacular facts of Mabel Stark’s life, but in Hough’s evocation of Mabel’s fictional voice. . . . Bloody but un-bowed, this heroine exited the stage on her own terms, but Hough has ensured that she remains brightly lit in the arena of memory. . . . Unforgettable.” –Emily Carter, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Astounding. . . .Hough captures the attitude and emotions of America through the first half of the twentieth century. . . .Like Katherine Dunn did with Geek Love, Hough brings a humanistic humor and melancholy to the otherwise freakish proceedings. . . .Heartbreakingly honest and insightful. . . . Feels like a sort of Great American Novel.” –Erik Henriksen, The Portland Mercury

“You’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyable novel. . . . [Hough’s] colorful account of [Mabel’s] wild life–in and out of the center ring–is irresistible.”
The Dallas Morning News

“Hough deserves credit for resurrecting the tale of this remarkable, unorthodox woman who fought to live by her own rules.” –John Griffin, The Miami Herald

“Stark’s whole life was like . . . a series of rip-snorting ups and downs, as frequently harrowing as a Saturday-afternoon movie serial. . . . Hough deserves credit for resurrecting the tale of this remarkable, unorthodox woman who fought most of her life to live by her own rules.” –John Griffin, The Arizona Republic

“A ribald and vivid portrait of a by-gone way of life, Stark’s story is hugely entertaining and surprisingly touching. Hough deserves a huge round of applause for bringing it to the center ring.” –Amy Smith, Tampa Tribune

“Spangled with salty truths and dazzling imagery. . . . Stands one of the most plucky, courageous, tenderhearted and innovative heroines in recent fiction. . . . The hyperbolic entertainment never flags, but neither do the insistent themes of artistic sacrifice and heartbreak and the transience of time.” –Marianne Gingher, The Raleigh News & Observer

“With materials from the Circus World Museum, personal letters, and interviews, Robert Hough spins a saga as sprawling as the circus itself. . . . Earthy and graphic, this books is not for the provincial.” –AudioFile

“Attention-grabbing. . . . [Hough’s] depictions of the many maulings Stark suffered at the paws of her beast are particularly gripping, especially her most gruesome attack, by two full-grown male tigers.” –Amy M. Bruce, Baltimore City Paper

“Rippling with brawny energy, its prose tangy with regret and pride, [The Final Confession of Mabel Stark] gives off the smells and tastes of circus-world exuberance.”  –Jesse Barrett, City Pages

“Stark’s story is so riveting that it makes for a great piece of fiction, even if it is largely based on fact.” –Melena Z. Ryzik, Bust

“As involving as it is informative, as moving as it is riveting. . . . It’s an exotic and exciting picture of the circus’ golden age and one talented and tormented (and well-scarred) star. This is a wonderful novel, which marks the debut of a writer to watch.”
–Lynn Harnett, The Portsmouth Herald

“Hough’s use of first-person narrative reflects a casual, conversational voice that matches the woman’s acerbic personality. The reader feels compelled to sit a spell and crack open a can of Hamm’s beer (Stark’s beverage of choice) as the cantankerous tiger trainer rails about her current bosses or shares memories of her favorite tiger, Rajah. . . . Hough’s novel paints a fascinating portrait of pre-Depression America.” –Andrea B. Bond, Charlestown Gazette

“Drawing upon newspaper clippings, interviews, and Mabel’s letters, Hough found what strikes one as his subject’s authentic voice. Outspoken, earthy, sometimes repentant, and always indomitable, Mabel leaps into life with the vigor of her beloved tigers. The result is a novel as fascinating as it’s heroine.”  –Rosemary M. Canfield Reisman, Magil Book Reviews

“Amazing and bittersweet.” –Marylin Hudson, Orange Coast

“Mabel is a fiery, sharp outlaw who married five men in her lifetime, and she could give a hoot about what society expected of her as a woman. In this fictional biography, Hough brings to life an amazing woman who brought wonder to the vibrant world of the circus in a magical time past. We get a glimpse of her many affairs, her rise to stardom, and her true love for the tigers she works with as she travels the country on the circus train.” –Alissa Haslam, Broadway Books, Portland, OR, Book Sense quote

“A marvelous debut . . . about the life and amazing adventures of the greatest female tiger trainer in circus history and narrated with delicious humor and warmth. . . . Just about perfect. One of the most entertaining novels in many years.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Rich in the atmosphere of circus life, this graphic, slangy fictional reminiscence also offers some surprising, deft metafictional touches.” –Publishers Weekly

“Exuberant. . . . An exciting and entrancing portrait of life in what was then the most popular public entertainment in the land. . . . Hough reveals Mabel’s inner self by giving her a voice and a way of telling her story that is unique and idiosyncratic. Mabel’s voice, her perspective, her attitude is one of the great pleasures and great achievements of the novel.” –Alden Mudge, Bookpage

“Utterly captivating and thrilling fictionalized life of the greatest female tiger-trainer in history. . . . It is also a snapshot of the circus at the height of its popularity in America in the early 20th century–an age when circus performers were superstars.” –The Bookseller

“Rambunctious Mabel Stark is brought to life from her journals and letters, and although Hough uses artistic license to fill in the gaps of his research, his intimations are all too plausible here, where the truth is certainly stranger than fiction.” –Elsa Gaztambide, Booklist

“A life that invites sheer, slack-jawed fascination . . . [Hough] has created one of the most remarkable, sympathetic, and finely rendered characters I have come across anywhere.”
Time (International Edition)

“Hough’s energetic writing brings bitter-sweet memories spilling off the page. . . .She launches into her final confession in a furious, funny, showy voice which never deserts her. . . . This book has teeth.” –The London Times

“Never flagging, the compelling story thunders along like a runaway circus train bearing a dangerous cargo of painful memory, wild animals, grotesque characters, and outlandish stories.” –The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is one hell of a journey. . . . Hough vividly renders the big-top life, from the working men to the divas in the ring. This is a world of blood and death . . . of illicit sex and mysterious pasts.” –Vancouver Sun

“Hough is masterful at capturing voice, not just that of his narrator but of the true-life characters that she rubs up against, including Stark’s circus bosses–John and Charles Ringling and Al G. Barnes.” –The Hamilton Spectator

“One of the most enjoyable and involving first novels that I have read in years . . . Mabel Stark is the first heroine I’ve fallen in love with for a long time.” –The Gazette (Montreal)

“Impossible to put down. Stark would be the ideal heroine under any circumstances, and the fact that she was also a historical figure only adds luster to what is truly a ripping story. . . . [Hough] has an almost cinematic ability to bring to life the carnival in all its garish, deafening clamor.” –Hour (Montreal)

“Hough presents a colorful picture of life in the golden days of the circus. . . . He portrays Mabel Stark as an eccentric, courageous, and daring heroine.” –The Windsor Star


Book Sense–76 Selection
Finalist for the Commonwealth Writers Prize 2002 for Best First Book in Canada and the Caribbean
Winner of the Trillium Award
Winner of the Audiophile Magazine Earphones Award (for the Bolinda Audiobook)



HE IS: TALL, KNOBBY-KNEED, THIN AS A QUARTER POLE, IN HIS shop on Seventh Street, craned over his tailoring bench, applying white piping to a vest, when the pain in his lower right abdomen becomes a searing white-hot agony. He moans and keels over his work table, clutching at himself. This causes Mr. Billetti, the produce vendor in the market stall next door, to come running. After a moment of panic (arms flapping, hopping on one spot, saying, “Holy-a cow, holy-a moly”), Mr. Billetti throws his groaning friend onto an empty wooden cart, laying him on the flatbed ordinarily reserved for rutabagas and eggplants. He rickshaws Dimitri all the way to St. Mary’s, bursts through the doors, and cries “Help! I needa help!” before collapsing at the toes of the Virgin Mary.

Ten minutes later, they scalpaled Dimitri open and removed what was left of his appendix, which by that point wasn’t much, a squishy burst purple thing the size of a prune split lengthwise.

Then they wheeled him into Ward 4 and parked him halfway down the right aisle, asleep and wearing a white flannel hospital gown. After about a half-hour or so, I wandered over and took my first long gander. He was lean and sharply boned and what the other trainee nurses called handsome, with his fine nose and wavy hair and olive-toned skin. Even unconscious he wore a smirk; later I figured out he wore it so much during the day his face had learned to fall that way natural when he was asleep.

As the poison spread through his body, he plumped up and turned the colour of a carrot. His hands looked like they’d burst if you pricked them. He slept around the clock, the only painkillers in 1907 being the kind that put you out like a light. On day three, I happened to hear two doctors discussing what all that stuff circulating through his body was likely going to do to him. “Either it’ll kill him,” the older one said, “or it won’t. I suppose we’ll have to wait around and see.”

After three or four days, it became obvious Dimitri was choosing the second option, for his bloating eased, his skin returned to a colour more salad oil than carrot and he didn’t look so mortuary-still when asleep. While emptying a chamber pot near his bed one morning, I took a moment to look him over, fascinated by the way his chest hair curled like baby fingers over the collar of his gown. Suddenly he opened his eyes and without bothering to focus said, “What is it your name, beautiful girl?”

Now this had a discombobulating effect on me, for not only was he the first person since my father had died to pay me a compliment, but he’d come out of what was practically a stone-cold coma to do it. I looked at him, perplexed at how he’d managed this, seeing as most people come awake so groggy and confused it takes them an hour to remember which way is up. I finally put it down to instinct, like the way you blink when onion vapour gets in your eye. When I turned and left I could feel his eyes struggling to get a bead on my crinolined backside.

“Maybe next time you stay longer,” he croaked, ‘maybe next time, beautiful girl. . . .”

That afternoon he asked for scissors, a bowl of hot water, a razor, a towel and a mirror, all of which I delivered when I was good and ready. Over the next half-hour he hacked at, and then trimmed, and then razored, the beard he’d grown over the past six days. When he was finished he looked at himself, closely, angling the mirror a hundred different ways so he could examine every nook and cranny, including the one burrowing deep and gopher-hole-like into the middle of his chin. “Aaaaaah,” he exclaimed, “now I am feeling like new man!” Only his moustache remained, pencil thin and dark as squid ink.

Soon he was getting up and roaming around and starting conversations with other patients. Didn’t matter those on the receiving end were weak and pallid and in no shape at all to hold up their end; Dimitri would sit and share his opinions on his country, or the tailoring business, or the hospital food, all of which he thought could be better. (He was the sort of man who smiled when complaining.) When he wasn’t chatting, he was flirting with the nurses, both trainee and regular. Once, I was having a drink at the water fountain near the end of the ward when I felt a hand alight on my right hip and give it a little polish. Course, it was Dimitri. I spun around and slapped him and told him he’d better holster those mitts of his if he wanted to keep them. From then on, every time he passed me he’d look like we shared a secret–a secret he’d let me in on when and if it pleased him.

All this fraternization infuriated our head nurse, the jowly and old-before-her-time Miss Weatherspoon, no doubt because she was the only one he didn’t turn beet-red with attention. She’d order him back to bed, only to have him grin, shrug his narrow shoulders and pretend he couldn’t speak English. It was a show of insolence that perked my ears, for I’d had my problems right off with Miss Weatherspoon, my not being the world’s greatest fan of people in love with their own authority. One day when Dimitri was up and roaming and responding to her bossiness in Greek, she grew flustered and decided to complain to one of the doctors. I happened to be walking by and saw her, salmon coloured, motioning with a crooked finger, face muscles tight as fencing wire. “But you said bedrest only” was the bit I heard. This caused the doctor, an older man named Jeffries, to roll his eyes and say, “Oh, all right, Beatrice, periodic bedrest if it’ll make you happy.” This put Miss Weatherspoon in an even worse mood than usual, which is saying something.

Suddenly everything needed doing all at once. Worked off our feet, we were. I got sore joints from scrubbing body parts. Two of the other nurses–lucky ones, I mean, with options–up and quit that afternoon. Right near the end of shift, Miss Weatherspoon decided Dimitri needed a sponge bath, so she ordered another trainee nurse named Victoria Richmond to do the job. Now, at that time it was popular for girls from good families to have a stint at nursing too, mostly because it gave them something to do while waiting to bag a husband. Victoria was such a girl: sixteen years old, skin like alabaster, blond ringlets, father a tobacco baron from the right side of Louisville, had a home to go to at night instead of the dorm for live-aways. In other words, she was the kind of girl I had trouble seeing eye to eye with, for every time Miss Weatherspoon told her to do something she’d lower her eyes, curtsey and say, “Of course, ma”am. Right away.”

She did so this time as well, after which she turned on her heel, practically a pirouette it was, and went off to fetch a bowl and her favourite pink bathing sponge. When she reached Dimitri’s bed she pulled the curtain and stepped inside, at which point I got bored and started doing something else. About a minute went by before me and everyone else on the ward, patient or staff, got interested again. And I mean real interested, for there was a screech, sounded like metal being sawed, and then Miss Richmond sprinted all girly toward the doors, elbows tight against the body, knees pressed together, lower legs wind-milling sideways. Her sponge was still gripped in one hand, and as she ran it left a series of watery drips on the floor. When she was gone it looked like an oversized slug had passed by.

When the commotion was over, Miss Weatherspoon marched to Dimitri’s bed and turtled her head through the split in the curtain. We all watched. She extracted herself and stood, her face featureless as a plank. A thought crossed her mind–you could practically see it passing, as her eyes slendered and her features sharpened and the edges of her mouth crept ever so slightly in the direction of the ceiling.

“Miss Haynie!” she bellowed.

I moved fast enough so’s not to be insubordinate but definitely not running like Victoria Richmond would have.

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon?”

“It seems Miss Richmond has had to take her leave. I’d like you to complete the patient’s sponge bath.”

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon.”

“Oh. . . and Mary?” She hesitated, savouring the moment. “If you enjoy your employment here, I suggest you be as thorough as possible. For unless I miss my guess, this patient is not the . . . how shall I put this? This patient is not the cleanest of individuals, particulary in regard to his daily ablutions. His private daily ablutions. Do I make myself clear? I’ll inspect him when you’re finished.”

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon,” I said again, this time stressing the part of her name that announced to the world she was unmarried and thick at the ankles and not about to get younger anytime soon. Truth was, I was annoyed and mightily so, for I barely had an inkling of what she was driving at, Miss Weatherspoon being the sort of woman who never said what she meant for fear of breaking some social convention invented so recently she hadn’t yet heard about it. Instead, she went at things in circles, erasing her tracks with words that did little more than eat up time. Fortunately, with people like that body language generally makes up for any vaguenesses; the gloating leer plastered across her face informed me this task was lewd and distasteful and intended solely to show who was boss. My only defence was to pretend it didn’t faze me in the least, so with as much calm as was musterable I turned and went looking for my sponge.

Upon reaching the patient’s bed, I stepped inside the curtain. Victoria’s bowl of warm water still sat on the metal bedside table riveted to the wall. Dimitri, meanwhile, looked like a child who’d been caught lying. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I could not help. . .”

I nodded as though I understood, even though I didn’t, the upshot being his apology didn’t relax me in the least, if in fact that’s what it’d been meant to do. “Good morning, Mr. Aganosticus,” I said all professional. Then I pulled back the bedsheet and took my first look at the body of my future first husband. Or at least I would’ve, had he not been furry from neck to spindly ankles and all points in between. On top of it all floated his crucifix, chain lost in the underbrush. Rooted and awestruck, I marvelled at how the hair swirled over his body, like a curlicued forest, growing lighter in some spots and heavier in others, the centre of the jungle falling in the exact vicinity of his privates. If he had a penis and testicles, they were lost under the jungle canopy, a fact that caused me to breathe a sigh of relief. My plan was: when I got to the critical part of the bath, I’d reach beneath the upper branches, give him a quick once-over and call him abluted.

I started on his neck, where gaminess can occur in the folds of skin. Dimitri closed his eyes. When I wiped his chest he sighed, which I took as a sign of encouragement. I moved my sponge over the area directly below the rib cage, where you can feel breath being drawn. Dimitri sighed again, and I felt encouraged again, and I proceeded to steer my hand a little lower, dampening the area where, on a less furry speciman, the stomach would’ve ended and the hair would’ve begun. I heard a gasp. I looked up and saw he had the same sheepish expression he’d been wearing when the sponge bath had begun. A second later, I saw what he had to be sheepish about, for there it was, his manly levitation, slow but unstoppable, rising through the jungle folds, like a totem pole being hefted by natives. I could practically hear the drumming. Though my heart was pounding and my insides felt airy, I couldn’t bring myself to look away: long and log-like it was, with a gnarling of grey-green veins that seemed to funnel skyward and provide sustenance to a bulbous, maroon headpiece.

I swallowed hard, and found there was nowhere to look; every time my eyes settled on a spot it happened to be that spot, a phenomenon making it hard to think or get things done. Finally I whispered, “Now you look here, Mr. Aganosticus. My instructions are to give you as good a washing as I’m able, and while I’m not particularly pleased about it I don’t have much choice in the matter. At the same time, I’m keen those on the other side of this curtain don’t know what’s going on in here. So if you make one peep, if you make one unnatural noise, party’s over. You understand?”

He nodded, and I proceeded, lathering my hands until they were barely recognizable as hands. Breathe, I told myself, breathe regular, for I was starting to feel a little faint, society having a way of preserving eighteen-year-old girls in a sort of virginal aspic back then. After a bit, I reached out and made contact in the way you make contact when contact’s a thing you’re not sure you really want. Suppose gingerly’s the word. Or tentative. Problem was, I was so young I didn’t even know when it comes to certain parts of the body a lightness of touch is the very thing that causes the most sensation. So I went ahead, not enjoying myself exactly but not hating it either: I remember feeling worldly for getting to know the contours involved and that particular way thickness can feel. After a moment, I looked up at Dimitri’s face and saw he’d clamped one hand over his mouth and that tears had welled up like jelly in the corners of each eye–trembling he was, and red as a fire engine. His facial contortions so fascinated me, in fact, I neglected to put an end to what I was doing to cause them in the first place, the upshot being that seconds later I discovered what a grown man will do when treated to an excess of soapy rubbing.

I stood there, shocked. I was seriously considering giving the patient a whack across his sheepish-looking face, and surely would’ve were it not for the fact it was my whacking hand that’d gotten soiled. Then, I heard it. Shoes, comfortable ones, coming to a squeaky stop outside the curtain. I froze, which was a mistake, for the sudden lack of movement tipped her off. She whipped open the curtain and caught me, still as a figurine, right hand held out and messy with seed.

For the longest time she just stood there, not talking, arms folded across her stomach, one hip jutted, smiling like a crocodile.

Reading Group Guide

Mabel Stark was the greatest female tiger trainer in history. In the 1910s and 1920s, during the golden age of the big top, she was the superstar of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus and one of America’s most eccentric celebrities. A tiny, curvaceous Kentucky blonde in a white leather bodysuit, Mabel was brazen, sexually adventurous, and suicidally courageous. The Final Confession of Mabel Stark is Robert Hough’s brilliant, wit-studded novel of her fantastic life.

Starting with her escape from a mental institution to begin her circus career as a burlesque dancer, Mabel’s exquisitely voiced confession is a live wire of dark secrets, broken dreams, and comic escapades. It is a brilliant, exhilarating story of an America before television and movies, when the spectacle of the circus reigned and an unlikely woman captured the public imagination with her singular charm and audacity.

1. In Mabel Stark Hough interweaves biography, American history, and exuberant fiction. What insight do we gain about the twentieth century? Discuss various issues explored in the book, such as mental health care, local police, prohibition, and minimum wage, or lack thereof. Think about the power of the Ringling Brothers who behave like robber barons.

2. Hough’s book can be categorized as an adventure, a love story, or wild kingdom. . . . What else? Many moments teeter on the edge of farce. Recall some of these moments. What do you think elevates the novel beyond slapstick?

3. A circus can be seen as a microcosm, a caravan, a ship of fools representing a full range of people, good and bad. Who are some of the memorable characters that encompass Mabel’s world?

4. It can be argued that Mabel’s greatest, most enduring love affair is with Rajah, her prize tiger. Apart from their unconventional (unnatural?) act in the ring, Rajah is her comfort, her warm presence in bed. Rajah speaks her language, usually obeys her, and challenges her. He is family for Mabel and signifies her success. What incidents in the story reveal this special relationship? Why is Rajah’s end so painful and ironic?

5. Mabel is extraordinarily challenged, physically and mentally, many times. After the Texan, she has desperate times. Explain. “I got so low I thought about having myself a little neurasthenic holiday. . . . Truth was, I didn’t have time for a nervous breakdown, which in some ways was a blessing and in some ways a curse” (p. 93). What would be her memories of “a neurasthenic holiday”? Do you think people sometimes opt for breakdowns?

6. Mabel is quick on her feet in the mechanics (and artistry) of harem dancing as well as later in tiger training. But in one performance of cooch dancing Mabel gets a cramp in her right thumb. “This slowed me down considerably, and by the time the other four Harem Girls were topless I was still wrestling with my strap” (p. 94). Not a shining moment in her dancing career.

As a Dancing Girl of Baghdad, ‘mostly I was learning how to fit in on a show, which wasn’t hard, a carnival not being all that much different from a madhouse . . . pretty much the same stories. Stories of woe, mostly, with heavy doses of bad planning tossed in” (p.67). What are some of the memorable stories of woe and bad planning?

7. ‘more advice? In life you take your laughs where you can get them” (p. 68). At this point Mabel is in the asylum. Why? She entertains herself by watching the corralling of errant patients: “After awhile the orderlies got impatient and resorted to foul language and throwing the lunatics over their shoulders, like bags of sorghum, just to keep them in one place for a minute.” Where else does Mabel get her laughs?

8. “My men. Whew. Had a slew of them. The exact numbers I’ll let you worry about” (p. 47). What are we to make of Mabel’s relationships with men? (See pp. 47-48 to refresh your memory.) What keeps us from judging her as merely a loose woman? She is certainly a challenge to conventional ideas about womanhood. How?

9. How is Mary/Mabel’s nursing ability important to the novel? When are her skills needed? Can you recall some vivid scenes when she is giving aid and succor? And when are the tables turned–when is Mabel herself ministered to?

10. Consider the ironies of Mary’s mother’s death, harrowed by a spooked horse. ‘she looked like she’d been torn apart by wild animals’ (p. 36). How is this description prescient? Hough writes of horrific violence between people and animals. Recall some examples. Yet, in and around the violence are moments of deep connection. Do the worlds of people and animals seem to mirror each other at times?

11. The circus, with its sucker-born-every-minute mentality, is a seductive world, for audience and performers. People may give it up, but there are always recidivists. “There were grifters who made so much money they left the show mid-season to buy small farms or ranches, saying they were bound and determined to straighten up and fly right and maybe even have a kid or two. Most were back by the end of the year, having lost their deeds in high-stakes poker games and looking not at all regretful” (p. 197). What are the aspects of this circus life that you think might be compelling? Mabel herself continually returns to the circus world. She needs the grit and tumble. Respectable and rich momentarily with her Texan, she moulders from boredom and her husband’s weird frigidity. Do we, too, find getting back to the circus a relief?

12. “That morning I awoke early (nerves) and gave Rajah a kiss on the head and squeezed the folds of his ears together, a gesture that tickled him and made him generally agreeable. When he came awake I scratched the downy fur of his underbelly and told him Mama was busy that day and he’d have to go to his c-a-g-e; was a word he understood even when spelled, so he arfed and made himself sad-eyed and limp in the tail” (p. 175-6).

As much as we admire Rajah and perhaps envy Mabel’s relationship with him, we do know that he is a precious bane, a lethal delight not for most mortals. But Mabel takes us into a mysterious world, where the lion lies down with the lamb, at least temporarily. What do we learn about the conjunction of man and beast? Do you worry that the animals are exploited? Do the talents and devotion of the trainers (especially Mabel) and the satisfaction of performance redeem the penalties of captivity? Better than a zoo?

13. Whether it’s spurred by ambition, necessity, or sheer exuberance, the American Dream makes us think of potential, the possibility to invent and reinvent oneself. Would you see Mabel’s life, and those of others in the book, as fitting into some kind of American Dream?

14. Mabel Stark is in the tradition of picaresque novels. Think of the rogues (picaros) Tom Jones and Huck Finn. These are in the coming-of-age genre, realistic in telling the world as it is. Heroes of the picaresque share chutzpah, ingenuity, and wit. They offer perspective on a world of mean hearts, greed, rigidity, pietism, and corruption. How specifically does Mabel fit into this tradition?

15. Mabel is outrageous, combative, and often unforgiving. But she can also be sensitive and devoted to those she loves. Above all, she is brave, funny, and immensely likable. Cite examples of these facets of this remarkable woman.

Early on, Mabel characterizes herself: ‘my not being the world’s greatest fan of people in love with their own authority.” (p. 4). Officialdom usually sets up her hackles, whether it’s cruel doctors, cops on the take, or overbearing bosses. What are some moments of her independence? Her self-knowledge is always refreshing. When one husband wants a divorce, she recalls, “With three husbands to my name, I had no qualms thinning the crowd a little” (p.175). Are we willing to suspend ordinary judgment about her ‘morality”?

16. Mabel has a remarkable and immediate voice. “Was it my fault I couldn’t tolerate contentment pure and simple? Jesus. There I go. Guilt. What a smiting that is. Worse than any tiger mauling” (p. 171). Do you see guilt as a disabling quality for Mabel? “That thing I did in 1927. Jesus. Was the worst thing one person can do to another person. For years afterwards I devoted my life into two. There was the before, when I’d hoped to the heavens I was a good person, and the after, when I knew for damn sure I wasn’t and just had to keep going despite it all” (p. 47). Is this view of herself accurate?

What were Mabel’s choices? Her earlier experiences, as an orphan in an unloving foster home, as a mystified, frightened, abused eighteen-year-old bride, and as a detainee in a brutal asylum might have made her cowed and repressed. The opposite, of course, happens. Explore these issues.

17. A last frontier or adventure for Mabel is old age. “If you think lost love’ll spark a case of the maudlins, just wait till you can’t tie your own two shoes without a symphony of grunts and groans and hoarse respirations. . . . I’m not a complainer, never have been, never will be, so I’ll skip the drawbacks and jump to the thing I do like about aging. The mind gets supple. . . . You start seeing around corners . . . you learn the trick of being in two places at once. . . . It’s quite a feat. You get up there in years and if you let it, your imagination can get about as real as anything else. Maybe more so’ (p. 46). Can you think of a more positive, creative way to accept old age?

18. What do the tiger and Art Rooney represent as opposing forces? Do you see the tiger symbolizing dark, destructive forces for Mabel? Is Art counterposed as the purely good? Does one definitively win out? Are the issues left ambiguous? To what degree might Rajah and Art be projections of Mabel’s psyche?


Little Big Man by Thomas Berger; Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus; Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields; True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey; Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively; The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright; The Devil That Danced on the Water by Aminatta Forna