When we first meet Lewis Tully, he is sitting on a rock gazing at the wreckage of his circus following a violent storm. Many of his animals are missing, run away, or dead; many tents and much of his equipment have been destroyed. There is no money to replace what is lost. Tully's circus, his way of life, is gone. Hector Blaney, one of his competitors, is there to gloat over the loss, to toss salt into the wound.
The Blue Moon Circus is a novel of dreams, their tugging pull upon those who have them, and their effects on others who might be drawn up into them. Tully's dream over the next few years is to have another circus. Does he think about it often? Only every once in a blue moon, giving us the title to the novel.
In the year 1926, seven years following the loss of his circus, Lewis, now in his fifties, is standing before a judge in a courtroom with his childhood friend Shelby. They've been arrested for playing poker in a "blind pig" (an illegal bar; this is the era of Prohibition) and now stand ready to be sentenced for their crime. Luckily for Tully, the judge is an old friend and he and Shelby are released.
Lewis has a sister, Alma, living in Chicago. She's a woman with a good heart who tries to help those she can. One such person needing help is Charlie, a nine-year-old boy at a crossroads in his life. He can either turn bad or, with proper direction, turn good. Alma entreats Lewis to take the boy and Lewis, almost against his will, does so. At the same time, due to his winnings at that poker game, Lewis finds he has enough money to do what, whether he admitted it or not over the years, he always wanted to do: rebuild the circus. Live his dream one more time.
Charlie, the young boy, sees the circus as all children do, as a place of wonder and fantasy. By putting Charlie in the mix, the author permits himself to tell us of some of that puerile wonder. The chapter entitled "Charlie's Troubles" perfectly captures the fears and imagination, the doubts and loneliness, that might afflict any young child.
Lewis, using his old connections, is able to obtain circus acts that are truly awe-inspiring: an old magician, Harley Fitzroy, who really does have some "magical" powers -- the power to heal and some psychic ability -- in addition to his well-performed illusions; Lucy Brown, the best trick horse rider in the country; Coats, the seven-foot giant and strongman; Juniper, the largest elephant around; Sheba, the meanest camel in captivity, one seeking revenge against a former tormentor; a red ape, the only one in existence; and a group of monkeys that happens to contain one particularly unbalanced simian. There are also zebras and lions, wirewalkers and clowns, among others.
Tully also obtains a snake-charmer who actually allows himself, each performance, to be bitten by his poisonous snake. The poison in the snake's fangs is real, and the snake-charmer actually "dies" each time he's bitten. Or comes close to it. He's built up a kind of immunity to the killing poison and, after a few minutes in which his pulse and heartbeat are actually gone, comes alive again to the amazement of all who sit in the audience and witness the "act".
The circus life is a hard one, the road and weather threatening destruction around every turn, and Mr. Blaney, Tully's old nemesis, is also going to do his best to be certain Tully's dream ends in failure. If the weather doesn't get Tully, Mr. Blaney will.
All the performers brought together under one tent by Tully's dream are affected by his dream in one way or another. Some people and children in small towns and cities visited by the Blue Moon Circus likewise will be forever affected. Some lives will continue much as before even after Tully's dream is gone or ended, but some lives will be changed forever.
Dreams can be powerful things, especially when people try to live them, to make them real. And if life can be a cabaret, at times it can also be a circus, filled with clowns and laughter some moments and with awe or fear other moments. Dreamers must always enter a fight of sorts so as to raise a tent to give their dreams a place to exist, even if that existence is only for a short time.