On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn’t allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She’s never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it’s for Lilly’s own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time–and sold to the circus sideshow.
More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents’ estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.
At first, The Barlow Brothers’ Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus’s biggest attraction. . .until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly’s fate and her family’s shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.
Moving between Julia and Lilly’s stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.
It’s not often I get to the end of a book and must really think about if I liked it or not. I can’t honestly say I liked Ellen Marie Wiseman’s The Life She Was Given, but I can say I appreciated so much about it that I am able to genuinely award this book a very solid four-star rating.
From beginning to end, this book is the twisted and sad story of a family warped by fear, religious extremes, hatred, and ignorance. Lily Blackwood is just ten years old when she’s forced to leave her family and join the circus. As one of the so-called “freaks,” it is Lily’s job to awe and amaze circus goers with her otherness, but at ten years old, all she really understands is having been abandoned by the only two people she has ever known in her entire life, her parents. Lily’s first months and years with the circus are marked by moments of pure terror, fear for her life, and only a few moments of true happiness. Sadly, this cycle will be never-ending and not truly understood by another human being until nearly two decades later when another family member uncovers the truth of Lily Blackwood’s life.
When Julia Blackwood returns to Blackwood Manor, it is under a cloud of despair. Her parents are both dead (though not particularly missed) and the home she has inherited is marred by years upon years of bad memories. In so many ways, the house feels haunted and as Julia begins picking her way through the rooms, many of which she was never allowed in, she discovers a whole host of evil and awful secrets kept from her by her deceased parents. With little in the way of answers, Julia turns to the Manor’s farm hand to help he unravel the mystery of her home and family. What Julia discovers brings to mind the old adage, ignorance is bliss.
As Lily and Julia’s stories unfold, it brings them ever closer to colliding. As the past hurtles toward the present, Julia is faced with some very difficult decisions about her future and the future of the seemingly cursed Blackwood Manor.
The Bottom Line: As this was my first Ellen Marie Wiseman book, I wasn’t precisely sure what to expect. I can’t say I enjoyed this book as the plot is just so dark and twisted and filled with so much tragedy and precious few moments of happiness. There is actually one scene I couldn’t even read ☹ What I did like is the craftsmanship involved in the writing of this book and the ability, on the part of the author, to let this tremendously sad tale be just that, a tremendously sad tale. Wiseman makes no attempt to make this something more than what it is, to take generations of anger and hurt, ignorance and fear and make them all suddenly disappear with the revelation of the secrets. In all, I found this book both disturbing and unsettling in the best way possible and immediately went to Amazon and bought two other of Wiseman’s books, The Plum Tree and What She Left Behind.