Book Review Vol. VIII, No. 1
The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska
by Jeff Raz
Jeff Raz has had a remarkably varied career in the performing arts that has supported him and his family for decades. His book The Snow Clown deals with only a small portion of his artistic endeavors, this time in the unlikely venues of the remote frozen tundra of Alaska and the equally unlikely heartland of Nebraska. In both of these venues clowning and circus are foreign matters approached with skepticism if not downright hostility.
Although there are only the two settings in which the action of Raz’s tales take place, The Snow Clown is divided into three sections, the first and longest takes place In Alaska, where Jeff has been hired by the Alaska Arts Council to bring some culture to the native population. To achieve this he presents his own clowning and works with the schools, from kindergarten to seniors in high school, teaching circus skills, in one section with a partner and in another alone. Each week’s stay culminates with a circus performance of sorts
In the second section, laid in Nebraska, Raz is an itinerant playwright. In the final section, almost two decades later, he is back in Alaska, now both a playwright and circus artist as he attempts to create a circus “for a people who have never seen a circus, will never see a circus and can never get a job in a circus.” Acknowledging that inescapable reality, he contemplates the ruins of a building that was designed by an outsider. Its roof collapses when it get snowed on. “Why try to make something that doesn’t belong here?: he is forced to ask himself. “How clueless. How arrogant.
“Maybe I want to stop trying to be the great white circus savior like at the Omaha Nation School,” he wonders. Nonetheless he tries, and in that sense the book is as political as it is personal.
In his telling of how he goes about his work, the fact that he is a clown is inescapable. There is a great deal of humor, mostly at the author’s own expense, and there are fascinating characters to be met along the way. These are well drawn, and we are easily sucked into the various stories thanks to his easy and graceful writing style. The narration is often moving without a sense of ego, arrogance or patronizing his students, the villages and their culture.
The author tells us in an introduction that the characters are fictional. I suspect fictionalized might be a better description. They and the events are based on the author’s actual experiences in the tundra of Alaska, during the depths of its winter and in Nebraska under somewhat balmier conditions. Eventually we also learn of his father’s untimely and tragic death as it is the subject of his play Father-Land that becomes an important element in the story.
Maintaining a career as an artist, especially one who is essentially a clown is not easy, and requires a great deal of compromise, but even this, we learn from The Snow Clown, is rewarding and meaningful, and it is fascinating to read of the adventures it leads the artist into.