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Fiction Historical

The Final Confession of Mabel Stark

by (author) Robert Hough

Random House of Canada
Initial publish date
May 2002
Historical, Contemporary Women, Biographical
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    May 2002
    List Price

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In the 1910s and 1920s, when circus was the most popular form of entertainment in North America, Mabel Stark made her name in a man’s world as the greatest female tiger trainer in history, the centre-ring finale act for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. Brazen, courageous, obsessed with tigers and sexually eccentric, Stark survived a dozen severe maulings — and five husbands. Now, at age 80 and about to lose her job, she decides that there is one last thing she needs to do: Mabel Stark wants to confess.

About the author

Robert Hough has been published to rave reviews in fifteen territories around the world. He is the author of The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (Vintage Canada, 2002), shortlisted for both the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book and the Trillium Book Award; The Stowaway (Vintage Canada, 2004), one of the Boston Globe’s top ten fiction titles of 2004; The Culprits (Vintage Canada, 2008); Dr. Brinkley’s Tower (House of Anansi, 2012), shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for fiction and longlisted for the Giller Prize; The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan (House of Anansi, 2015), a finalist for the Trillium Book Award; and Diego’s Crossing (Annick Press, 2015), shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award. Hough lives in Toronto, ON.

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  • Nominated, Trillium Book Award

Excerpt: The Final Confession of Mabel Stark (by (author) Robert Hough)

Chapter 1: The Athenian Tailor

He is: tall, knobby-kneed, thin as a quarter pole, in his shop on Seventh Street, craned over his tailoring bench, applying white piping to a vest, when the pain in his lower right abdomen becomes a searing white-hot agony. He moans and keels over his work table, clutching at himself. This causes Mr. Billetti, the produce vendor in the market stall next door, to come running. After a moment of panic (arms flapping, hopping on one spot, saying, “Holy-a cow, holy-a moly”), Mr. Billetti throws his groaning friend onto an empty wooden cart, laying him on the flatbed ordinarily reserved for rutabagas and eggplants. He rickshaws Dimitri all the way to St. Mary’s, bursts through the doors, and cries “Help! I needa help!” before collapsing at the toes of the Virgin Mary.

Ten minutes later, they scalpaled Dimitri open and removed what was left of his appendix, which by that point wasn’t much, a squishy burst purple thing the size of a prune split lengthwise. Then they wheeled him into Ward 4 and parked him halfway down the right aisle, asleep and wearing a white flannel hospital gown. After about a half-hour or so, I wandered over and took my first long gander. He was lean and sharply boned and what the other trainee nurses called handsome, with his fine nose and wavy hair and olive-toned skin. Even unconscious he wore a smirk; later I figured out he wore it so much during the day his face had learned to fall that way natural when he was asleep.

As the poison spread through his body, he plumped up and turned the colour of a carrot. His hands looked like they’d burst if you pricked them. He slept around the clock, the only painkillers in 1907 being the kind that put you out like a light. On day three, I happened to hear two doctors discussing what all that stuff circulating through his body was likely going to do to him. “Either it’ll kill him,” the older one said, “or it won’t. I suppose we’ll have to wait around and see.”

After three or four days, it became obvious Dimitri was choosing the second option, for his bloating eased, his skin returned to a colour more salad oil than carrot and he didn’t look so mortuary-still when asleep. While emptying a chamber pot near his bed one morning, I took a moment to look him over, fascinated by the way his chest hair curled like baby fingers over the collar of his gown. Suddenly he opened his eyes and without bothering to focus said, “What is it your name, beautiful girl?”

Now this had a discombobulating effect on me, for not only was he the first person since my father had died to pay me a compliment, but he’d come out of what was practically a stone-cold coma to do it. I looked at him, perplexed at how he’d managed this, seeing as most people come awake so groggy and confused it takes them an hour to remember which way is up. I finally put it down to instinct, like the way you blink when onion vapour gets in your eye. When I turned and left I could feel his eyes struggling to get a bead on my crinolined backside.

“Maybe next time you stay longer,” he croaked, “maybe next time, beautiful girl....”

That afternoon he asked for scissors, a bowl of hot water, a razor, a towel and a mirror, all of which I delivered when I was good and ready. Over the next half-hour he hacked at, and then trimmed, and then razored, the beard he’d grown over the past six days. When he was finished he looked at himself, closely, angling the mirror a hundred different ways so he could examine every nook and cranny, including the one burrowing deep and gopher-hole-like into the middle of his chin. “Aaaaaah,” he exclaimed, “now I am feeling like new man!” Only his moustache remained, pencil thin and dark as squid ink.

Soon he was getting up and roaming around and starting conversations with other patients. Didn’t matter those on the receiving end were weak and pallid and in no shape at all to hold up their end; Dimitri would sit and share his opinions on his country, or the tailoring business, or the hospital food, all of which he thought could be better. (He was the sort of man who smiled when complaining.) When he wasn’t chatting, he was flirting with the nurses, both trainee and regular. Once, I was having a drink at the water fountain near the end of the ward when I felt a hand alight on my right hip and give it a little polish. Course, it was Dimitri. I spun around and slapped him and told him he’d better holster those mitts of his if he wanted to keep them. From then on, every time he passed me he’d look like we shared a secret–a secret he’d let me in on when and if it pleased him.

All this fraternization infuriated our head nurse, the jowly and old-before-her-time Miss Weatherspoon, no doubt because she was the only one he didn’t turn beet-red with attention. She’d order him back to bed, only to have him grin, shrug his narrow shoulders and pretend he couldn’t speak English. It was a show of insolence that perked my ears, for I’d had my problems right off with Miss Weatherspoon, my not being the world’s greatest fan of people in love with their own authority. One day when Dimitri was up and roaming and responding to her bossiness in Greek, she grew flustered and decided to complain to one of the doctors. I happened to be walking by and saw her, salmon coloured, motioning with a crooked finger, face muscles tight as fencing wire. “But you said bedrest only” was the bit I heard. This caused the doctor, an older man named Jeffries, to roll his eyes and say, “Oh, all right, Beatrice, periodic bedrest if it’ll make you happy.” This put Miss Weatherspoon in an even worse mood than usual, which is saying something.

Suddenly everything needed doing all at once. Worked off our feet, we were. I got sore joints from scrubbing body parts. Two of the other nurses–lucky ones, I mean, with options–up and quit that afternoon. Right near the end of shift, Miss Weatherspoon decided Dimitri needed a sponge bath, so she ordered another trainee nurse named Victoria Richmond to do the job. Now, at that time it was popular for girls from good families to have a stint at nursing too, mostly because it gave them something to do while waiting to bag a husband. Victoria was such a girl: sixteen years old, skin like alabaster, blond ringlets, father a tobacco baron from the right side of Louisville, had a home to go to at night instead of the dorm for live-aways. In other words, she was the kind of girl I had trouble seeing eye to eye with, for every time Miss Weatherspoon told her to do something she’d lower her eyes, curtsey and say, “Of course, ma’am. Right away.”

She did so this time as well, after which she turned on her heel, practically a pirouette it was, and went off to fetch a bowl and her favourite pink bathing sponge. When she reached Dimitri’s bed she pulled the curtain and stepped inside, at which point I got bored and started doing something else. About a minute went by before me and everyone else on the ward, patient or staff, got interested again. And I mean real interested, for there was a screech, sounded like metal being sawed, and then Miss Richmond sprinted all girly toward the doors, elbows tight against the body, knees pressed together, lower legs windmilling sideways. Her sponge was still gripped in one hand, and as she ran it left a series of watery drips on the floor. When she was gone it looked like an oversized slug had passed by.

When the commotion was over, Miss Weatherspoon marched to Dimitri’s bed and turtled her head through the split in the curtain. We all watched. She extracted herself and stood, her face featureless as a plank. A thought crossed her mind–you could practically see it passing, as her eyes slendered and her features sharpened and the edges of her mouth crept ever so slightly in the direction of the ceiling.

“Miss Haynie!” she bellowed.

I moved fast enough so’s not to be insubordinate but definitely not running like Victoria Richmond would have.

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon?”

"It seems Miss Richmond has had to take her leave. I’d like you to complete the patient’s sponge bath.”

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon.”

“Oh ... and Mary?” She hesitated, savouring the moment. “If you enjoy your employment here, I suggest you be as thorough as possible. For unless I miss my guess, this patient is not the ... how shall I put this? This patient is not the cleanest of individuals, particulary in regard to his daily ablutions. His private daily ablutions. Do I make myself clear? I’ll inspect him when you’re finished.”

“Yes, Miss Weatherspoon,” I said again, this time stressing the part of her name that announced to the world she was unmarried and thick at the ankles and not about to get younger anytime soon. Truth was, I was annoyed and mightily so, for I barely had an inkling of what she was driving at, Miss Weatherspoon being the sort of woman who never said what she meant for fear of breaking some social convention invented so recently she hadn’t yet heard about it. Instead, she went at things in circles, erasing her tracks with words that did little more than eat up time. Fortunately, with people like that body language generally makes up for any vaguenesses; the gloating leer plastered across her face informed me this task was lewd and distasteful and intended solely to show who was boss. My only defence was to pretend it didn’t faze me in the least, so with as much calm as was musterable I turned and went looking for my sponge.

Editorial Reviews

“Robert Hough pulls together fact and fiction to unfurl a life that invites sheer, slack-jawed fascination.”
--Lynn Coady, Time

“The frame story, of an octogenarian Stark in danger of losing her job at the JungleLand wildlife park, is reminiscent of both The Stone Angel and The Stone Diaries.”
--The Vancouver Sun
“A marvelous debut…narrated with delicious humour and warmth. Just about perfect. One of the most entertaining novels in many a year.”

“Never flagging, the compelling story thunders along like a runaway circus train bearing a dangerous cargo of painful memory, wild animals, grotesque characters and outlandish stories, all told through the distinctive, often humorous, voice Hough creates for his protagonist.”
--The Globe and Mail

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