BOOK REVIEW: The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman

Publication Date: July 25, 2017
Format: Paperback
Genre:  Coming of Age

Publisher: Kensington
304  pages
Buy:  Kindle Paperback 


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.


This was a difficult read in many ways.  Circus life was not easy and so called Freaks while they found a family in the circus were still shunned and made fun of by much of society.  They were given opportunity by the circus but they were also taken advantage of since their options were limited. Animals were also not treated well, often abused and blamed when they acted like, well, animals.  

I liked how the chapters in this book went back and forth between Lilly and Julia, unearthing secrets with each passing chapter.  Julia is trying to find her way in life now that her parents are gone and she is trying to run their horse farm, however she sees things from a different point of view and is struggling with what direction she wants to go in.  Lilly is thrust into the world unprepared for life.  She lived a sheltered hidden life and then was thrust into the limelight. Luckily she found friends and protectors along the way.  

This is not a happy book but I think that it does a service to remind us of the injustices done to people and animals. It reminds us not to judge people based on their looks, but on their actions.  Lilly's parents looked proper and pious but were the worst, her mother in particular. I think her father was weak and didn't know how to stand up to his wife. But the way the mother wrapped her abuse in religion was deplorable to me.  The way they treated Lilly all the way to the end was just monstrous. 

Ellen Marie Wiseman has created characters that you can truly feel for.  Including the animals in the book. It is as if they don't matter as much to most of the humans but Lilly knows their pain, being misunderstood and not counted. I really enjoyed this book and it will stick by me for a while.  

Thankfully most circuses don't have animals anymore, but it certainly makes you think long and hard about the ones that did. But beyond that it also looks at the "sport" of horse racing and the sad logic that is applied to breeding horses. It's amazing the atrocities that happen behind closed doors. 

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