Mirette on the High Wire


By Emily Arnold McCully

G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1992

One hundred years ago in Paris, when theaters and music halls drew traveling players from all over the world, the best place to stay was at the widow Gateau’s, a boardinghouse on English Street. Acrobats, jugglers, actors, and mimes from as far away as Moscow and New York reclined on the widow’s feather mattresses and devoured her kidney stews. Madame Gateau worked hard to make her guests comfortable, and so did her daughter, Mirette.

What was initially conceived as a biography of real-life daredevil Blondin is now a lovely tale of bravery and redemption. Young Mirette becomes fascinated with her mother’s new boarder — Monsieur Bellini, a retired high-wire walker who prefers to take his meals alone and quietly walks across a tightrope when he’s alone in the courtyard. Mirette thinks his talent is magical, and when he refuses to teach her how to “cross the sky,” she teaches herself, damnit. Oh, and then she teaches Bellini an even more valuable lesson: how to take a leap of faith.  McCully’s watercolor paintings remind me of that scene in Mary Poppins with the chalk drawings. You literally want to crack the spine of this book and jump in.

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