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Tonic and Balm

Stephanie Allen

ISBN 978-0-9984634-3-8, paperback, 208 pp., $22.95, February 5, 2019

It’s 1919, a time when traveling medicine shows can still find audiences eager to buy miracle “cures” and watch old-fashioned variety acts onstage. Stephanie Allen’s novel Tonic and Balm follows one such troupe, Doc Bell’s Miracles and Mirth Medicine Show, as it winds through Pennsylvania, struggling to stay afloat amidst internal discord and dwindling revenues.

Doc Bell’s show, which features both black and white performers, includes a song-and-dance team whose marriage is fraying, a sword-swallower and her charming but fickle lover, and a medical doctor in a downward spiral of alcoholism. Performers and crew alike are caught off-balance when the show takes on a new addition, a young woman with hydrocephaly, who finds herself cast into a dismaying role as a sideshow exhibit.

Set against a backdrop of rural poverty and a wave of anti-black violence, Tonic and Balm examines the tenuous solidarity and shifting alliances of people on the fringes of society.

STEPHANIE ALLEN is an NEA fellowship recipient and author of the story collection A Place between Stations, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist.

Cover design: Whitney Pearce

Click here to read a sample chapter

Click here to download the reading group guide

Honors, Press Coverage, and Author Events

Shortlisted for the 2020 William Saroyan International Prize

A WNBA Great Group Reads selection for 2019

Book of the Day, Foreword Reviews

Highly recommended at Historical Novels Review

Reviews: NPR; Historical Novels Review; The Masters Review; Foreword Reviews; Fiction Writers Review; Small Press Picks; #read99women; Museum of Americana; Full Stop

Best-of and must-read lists: Hidden Gems of 2019 (Ms. Magazine); Most Anticipated (The Millions); Reading List for Black History Month & Beyond (CLMP); Most Anticipated (Litreactor); Reviewers’ Choice: 2019 (Magnify); Summer Reading List (The Writer’s Center)

Author interviews: Museum of Americana; Book Q&As with Deborah Kalb

Author appearances: Writer’s Center Live!, Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD); Reston Reads (Reston, VA); Publish Now seminar, Writer’s Center; Women’s National Book Association panel discussion (Collegeville, PA)

Praise for Tonic and Balm

“Uses [the medicine show] to explore larger issues of race, class, and gender…. More than constructing the show, the book deconstructs it, as if designed to shed characters at the same pace that Haydn’s Farewell Symphony requires musicians to leave the stage.”—NPR

“A fascinating look at [an] itinerant troupe and their hardscrabble world. Black, white, hetero, gay—about the only thing the performers share in common is their poverty, a trait which also marks their audiences…. Highly recommended.”— Historical Novels Review

“Fearlessly offers the B-side of American culture—more sultry, racially turbulent, eccentric, harrowing, even redemptive.” — Howard Norman, author of The Ghost Clause

“Delivers subtle, nuanced examinations of race, gender and difference—as well as solidarity and resistance—that will resonate with readers today.” —Karla J. Strand, Ms. Magazine

“Stephanie Allen’s fascinating and richly textured novel … renders an America where the marginalized must do everything they can to survive, which often entails exploiting the vulnerable, but also leads to tender displays of mercy, solidarity, and love.”— Alice Stephens, #read99women

“The multivocal narration of the troupe makes the book resemble its subject. Each new story is another act, another performer. But it’s a deeply sad book, full of heartbreak and injustice…. An unusual book on an unusual topic, and a fine fictional chronicle of a lost art.”— Katharine Coldiron for The Masters Review

“A captivating clan of cast-offs who were only misfits prior to stumbling upon one another.”—Foreword Reviews

“Even as [the characters] fight against each other…, they push harder to remain connected…. We are with them at each moment, pulled in deeper and deeper at every turn of the page.”—Fiction Writers Review

“Entertaining and deeply affecting… Tonic and Balm, … like the medicine show itself, is wonderfully strange and haunts the imagination long after the players have exited the stage.”—Small Press Picks

“Faceted, surprising, and worthy of attention.” — Museum of Americana

“Succeeds both in creating memorable characters and in fashioning a formal whole that is more substantial than the aggregation of its parts, … [and offers a] vision of human possibility under pressure from social convention.” — Full Stop

“An unforgettable chorus of con men, roustabouts, and ‘freaks’ that broke my heart while also leaving me uplifted and wanting more.” — David Haynes, author of A Star in the Face of the Sky

“Restores the voices of overlooked American exiles, a troupe of people striving for their day in the sun.” — Cathy Day, author of The Circus in Winter