When I read the summary of We Walked the Sky, I was instantly hooked: The story of one young woman joining the circus in 1965, alternating with the story of her granddaughter leaving the circus 50 years later. While I remember loving the circus as a kid, as an adult, my bubble burst when I learned that animal abuse is all too prevalent. This is something that is addressed and plays a huge part in this novel. But I have to admit that I find the history of the American circus fascinating, and I love to hear stories of circuses that travelled across the US, stopping briefly from town to town, with those in the circus living nomadic lives, but also creating a family.
The heyday of the American circus is where our story starts. It’s 1965, in a suburb just outside of Boston. Katherine’s mother is sick and dying, and her father is an abusive tyrant. Katherine herself can’t imagine what abuse she will be subject to once her mother is gone. The circus has come to town, and on the front porch of their home, Katherine’s mother gives her a priceless brooch and tells her to run. “Where?” Katherine asks, and her mother responds, “You know where.” Luckily, the ringmaster of the VanDrexel Family Circus has a kind heart. Katherine gives him the name of Victoria and begins her new life. As we see Victoria heal from abuse, learn to love and trust her new family, and become an expert tightrope walker, we also meet Victoria’s granddaughter, Callie, with interspersed chapters of her story in the modern day. Callie and her mother have just left the VanDrexel circus, where both were born and raised.
Callie is not happy about leaving the circus; she is the star of the show as one of the best tightrope walkers in the world. However, her mother works with all the animals in the circus and as with most circuses in the modern day, animals are no longer part of the show. The two move to Florida to live at and work with an animal sanctuary who has taken in her mother’s animals. While Callie tries to navigate this change, especially hard because she is closed off and does not let people in easily, she discovers a jewelry box that once belonged to her now-deceased grandmother. The box contains all kinds of handwritten notes which Victoria wrote to herself about life, advice, and things to remember. Callie uses these scraps of paper as inspiration as she goes to school for the first time, meets new friends, and learns to trust others and open up to them.
It wasn’t until I completed listening that I truly understood how well done this narration was. First off, this is a beautiful novel. As some reviews of the book have already mentioned, Victoria’s story is so compelling that Callie’s story can’t compare, and actually comes off as a little flat. When I first started listening, I thought Erin Spencer was doing a poor job at narrating Callie, because I didn’t like Callie and was not engaged with her story. I just wanted to get through Callie’s chapters as fast as possible so I could return to Victoria. Towards the end of this novel, however, I realized it wasn’t a bad narration–Callie is supposed to be unlikeable. I believe this is how we see her growth at the end of the story, and it also makes Victoria’s journey pop even more! In fact, maybe not intentional, but Spencer gives Victoria such a wistful, lush narration that when it contradicts with Callie’s sharp, angsty (and sometimes even annoying) voice, the differences between the two characters and their journeys elevates Victoria’s story so much more.
One of the highlights of this production is the delivery of the heartbreaking scenes of this novel. I am the first person who will tell you, I do not want to cry when listening to an audiobook. Especially when I am listening in the morning… before work…or driving in the car…Anyways..! While this novel ends with a very hopeful message, Erin Spencer delivers the heartaches of this novel with such softness and devastation that I shed multiple tears while listening. Truly, the beautiful writing, wonderful story, and excellent narration combine here for a lovely listen.
In the end, both Victoria and Callie have a compelling coming-of-age story, and one can’t leave this novel without thinking about female independence and the strength women can draw from within themselves.
As one of the last life advice notes that Callie reads from Victoria says,
“Step right up. Prepare to be enchanted. And always move forward.”
We Walked the Sky, by Lisa Fiedler, read by Erin Spencer. 9 hours, 18 minutes. Listening Library, 2019.
Listen to We Walked the Sky at your library
Listen to We Walked the Sky at Listening Library
Colleen Seisser is the Collection Services Manager at the Aurora Public Library in Aurora, IL. She is a current Board Member at Large on the YALSA Board of Directors and she also reviews audiobooks for Booklist Magazine. Colleen attributes ramping up her obsession with audiobooks from serving in various roles on YALSA’s Amazing Audiobooks for Young Adults Committee from 2012-15. She has been listening non-stop since then! When not listening, Colleen is either crafting, gardening, or jammin’ on her planner! @colleenTS81