The Bear in a Muddy Tutu (278 pp, $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-60381-825-4), by Cole Alpaugh, is a modern fable about lovable misfits, both animal and human, whose fates become intertwined in a ragtag circus troupe.
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“While this book takes a dark look at the human condition, it does so in a somewhat humorous way. You can go from feeling sorry about the things the characters have to face to laughing out loud in a manner of moments. Alpaugh has skillfully woven a tapestry of characters together which pull you along—they become people you know and you want to find out what happens to this circus of misfits. Though the premise may sound ludicrous, it becomes believable and immerses you as the reader in the world created …. It is a must read.” Read more …
—Author LK Gardner-Griffe, GriffieWorld.com
“Quirky whimsy. Joyful heartbreak. A story of broken people who find a way to hold themselves and each other together. I’d recommend it if you want a charming, bizarre tale with a satisfying, fate-driven ending. It reads a little like Christopher Moore but with more heart …. It’s fanciful, beautiful, and escapist to the core.” Read more …
—Mercedes M. Yardley, ABrokenLaptop.com
“The characters are definite misfits, lost souls filled with emotional hurt, but they don’t run around crying, ‘Woe is me.’ They reminded me of an old stuffed animal with its fur worn off and a patchwork of fabric holding its stuffing inside. Broken? Yes. Worthless? No. If you enjoy fast-paced, quirky reads filled with offbeat, colorful characters and a touch of sorrow draped in the colorful striping of a circus tent, I think you’ll enjoy The Bear in a Muddy Tutu.” Read more …
—Damien Walters Grintalis’s Blog
“From the first page to the last, Cole Alpaugh had my attention. His zany and colorful characters and style of writing put me in mind of one of my favorite authors, John Irving. I suspect that I have found my next new favorite author.”
—Michelle Hessling, Publisher, The Wayne Independent
Lennon Bagg’s daughter has been stolen away by his ex-wife, and he’s just learned the newspaper he reports for is bankrupt. While on his final assignment, Bagg knocks a policeman unconscious to save the life of a runaway circus bear, and suddenly finds himself responsible for a band of stranded roustabouts who’ve pitched their tents on a small island along the New Jersey shore. Eight hundred miles away, a young girl searches for her dead father on the beaches of Bermuda. Dead people, after all, become birds—a theory she derived from her mother’s explanation that when you die, you grow wings and fly away. A hapless cult leader and the sulking newspaper reporter hatch a plan to save the circus, which includes a plane ride into the Bermuda Triangle accompanied by a man who holds the record for being struck by lightning. And it’s starting to cloud up …
In The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, hope is something vigorously avoided because it usually means someone is about to be run over by a speeding car.
“Graceful Gracie wasn’t always a dancing bear,” says Alpaugh. “Years ago, I’d taken my oldest daughter to see a traveling circus. It was an old, broken down troupe with license plates from down south, but they had an enormous African elephant with a headdress made of pink ostrich feathers. We were walking through the maze of animal cages when we noticed a bird had landed on the elephant’s head and was picking at the feathers. The elephant was prodding it with the tip of her trunk. My six-year-old daughter was amazed by the interaction, and we stood watching the bird trying to steal feathers, perhaps for its nest, while the elephant tried gently coaxing it away. Then, one of the circus workers walked up and, for no apparent reason, cracked the elephant across the side of its head with a long wood bullhook. The bird flew away, and the elephant began to cry, as did my daughter. It made me want to tell the story.”
Cole Alpaugh’s newspaper career began in the early 80s, starting with small daily papers in Maryland and Massachusetts, where his stories won national awards. His most recent job was at a large daily in Central New Jersey, where his “true life” essays included award-winning pieces on a traveling rodeo and an in-depth story on an emergency room doctor that was nominated by Gannett News Service for a 1991 Pulitzer Prize. Cole also did work for two Manhattan-based news agencies, covering conflicts in Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Thailand and Cambodia. His work has appeared in dozens of magazines, as well as most newspapers in America. Cole is currently a freelance photographer and writer living in Northeast Pennsylvania, where he also coaches his daughter’s soccer team. You can find Cole online at ColeAlpaugh.com.
Keep reading for an excerpt:
Morgan Freeman sat on her towel, alone on the beach except for the birds. At ten years old, the skinny little girl with pale skin and brown hair just touching her shoulders had already given up on a lot of things. Santa was the hardest to let go of, but there was also the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and all that junk about crossing your fingers for good luck and not stepping on cracks. All were gone for the fourth grader, who had also given up on finding any real friends on this stupid island.
“Are you my dad?” Morgan halfheartedly asked a seagull. The question was strictly out of habit, since she’d seen him around enough to know better.
The gull had snuck up next to her towel in the pink sand, but without food, Morgan was apparently not all that interesting. It watched her for a minute or two, refused to answer any questions, and then flew back in the direction of its flock’s usual dumpster hangout behind the church kitchen.
Morgan Bagg had been renamed Morgan Freeman, according to the passport and other documents her mother had spent several thousand dollars to have created.
“Oh, yes, little missus, like the famous actor!” the uniformed customs officer at Bermuda L.F. Wade International Airport had said, waving the two females on with a friendly smile.
Birds being dead people was a fact etched in stone; it was absolute truth and nonnegotiable. It was also the main reason other fourth graders called her Mental Morgan and Cuckoo Bird Girl.
“I don’t care what names they call me,” Morgan told a Sooty Shearwater that had hopped up to her, head cocked to one side to better eye the girl. “I know you, don’t I? Have we met? You look really familiar.”
The bird kept watching her from a safe distance. This big animal, it seemed to be thinking, wasn’t making any sudden moves and maybe had something to eat in its pockets.
“I’m looking for my dad,” Morgan told the curious, mud-colored bird. “My dad is a bird, too. His name is Lennon Bagg, and I miss him very much.”
Back when Jennifer Bagg, now Freeman, had hustled her daughter through the Philadelphia airport, Morgan had kept asking about Daddy. She was supposed to see Daddy that night and spend the weekend. Where were they going? Was Daddy coming on the airplane, she had cried as her mother handed the tall lady in a dark blue skirt their tickets.
“I don’t see Daddy anywhere, Mom.” Morgan peered around her mother as they walked single file toward their seats.
“Daddy said we were going to make a real pizza tonight,” Morgan told her mother. She refused to sit, blocking the aisle for the impatient, weary-looking passengers behind them.
Morgan had heard her mother and friend talking about an airplane and a place called Bermuda, whispering things about starting life over far away. Was this what all the secret talk had been about?
“Daddy’s going to be really, really sad, Mommy.” Morgan reluctantly scooted into her seat. “He can’t make pizza without me. I have to put on the tomato sauce and cheese. He’ll mess up.”
“We’re going to a very special place with beautiful beaches.”
“Will Daddy be there?”
“Then I don’t want to go! We have to get off the airplane right now!”
“Daddy can’t come,” Jennifer began, but she looked stuck to the little girl, like she was having a hard time telling the truth. It happened sometimes to Morgan when she broke something nice.
“If Daddy can’t come, then I’m staying!” She was teetering on the edge of panic. “I don’t care about beaches. Daddy can take me to the beach.”
“Daddy can’t come because he got very sick,” Jennifer said to the little girl, who was suddenly quiet, her face frozen by the words. “He’s very sick and you know how when people are sick they can be contagious? Do you understand what ‘contagious’ is?”
“You can make other people sick,” Morgan whispered.
“Yes, Daddy is very, very sick and he’s contagious.”
Morgan looked past her mother, out at the runway lights. The stewardess began explaining the emergency procedures as Jennifer buckled them both in tightly. All the fight had gone out of Morgan as the plane backed up and headed away from the terminal. It revved its engines and then coasted out toward the runway.
Morgan sat quietly, worrying about her father. Had she made him sick?
As the plane raced down the runway, Morgan watched her mother peering out the little window. It seemed like her mother didn’t care at all about Daddy. Why would they be flying away when Daddy was so sick, even if he was contagious?
“Is Daddy dead?” Morgan whispered to her mother, but Jennifer didn’t answered, didn’t even seem to hear the little girl’s question. “Is he, Mommy?”
The tears on Jennifer Bagg’s face seemed real as she turned and pulled her daughter into her arms as best she could with the seat belts still attached. “Yes, he is.”
“What happens when you die, Mommy?” Morgan asked into her mother’s silky, lightly perfumed blouse.
“You grow wings, Morgan. You grow wings and you fly up to Heaven.”
The little girl rocked in her mother’s arms, crying softly, thinking about the two boxes of pizza mix she and her dad had bought on their last trip to the grocery store.
“We’ll make one giant pizza,” Daddy had told her. “With anchovies!”
“Double yuck! I know you’re just teasing.”
Morgan fell asleep somewhere over the blackness of the Atlantic Ocean on her way to her new life. She dreamed about her father growing wings.