Young Toby Tyler longed to see the circus, but Uncle Daniel had only given him a penny for spending money. He bought six peanuts from the man who owned the circus food booth, and readily answered the questions proprietor Job Lord asked him.
He said Uncle Daniel wasn’t his real uncle, he was a deacon, and rapped him on the head with a hymnbook when Toby fell asleep during church service. Toby didn’t know who his real parents were, he lived with Uncle Daniel, who was always complaining that the boy didn’t do enough work to pay for all the food he ate.
Mr. Lord told about an ungrateful boy who’d been hired to help run the outside food booth, as well as sell food within the big tent. That boy got to see the circus shows every day, plus he earned a dollar a week, in addition to his room and board, but the boy up and left because he thought he’d been asked to do too much work.
Toby was indignant over any boy not realizing there could be nothing better than traveling with a circus, and he was delighted when Mr. Lord offered him a job. Uncle Daniel didn’t even seem to like him, so the church deacon should be glad to be rid of Toby Tyler.
Job Lord warned Toby not let anyone know he had a job, but to go home as usual for supper, and then sneak away that evening, when the circus would be leaving for the next town.
At suppertime Toby began to think Uncle Daniel might not be quite as stern and mean as he’d always thought him to be, and he was tempted to not run off with the circus. But he’d given his word to Mr. Lord, and it would be dishonest for a boy to say he was going to do something, and then change his mind. Despite having given his word, Toby would have stayed if Uncle Daniel had spoken just a couple of kind words to him.
That evening, when Toby returned to the circus grounds, he regretted saying he’d take the job. As he wandered around he came to the monkey cage, and noticed the oldest primate gazing at him so sadly that Toby was sure he knew the boy was going through hard times. He began telling the monkey his troubles, and received a look of sympathy. Something about the monkey’s appearance reminded him of a neighbor, so he began calling his new friend Mr. Stubbs.
Toby was assigned to ride with Old Ben, who drove the wagon that carried the monkey cage, and during the bumpy ride Ben provided the boy with an old horse blanket, and Toby fell asleep on the top of the wagon.
The next day Toby discovered why Mr. Lord’s last boy had run off from his circus job. Job Lord whipped Toby for making mistakes, or if he thought the boy was about to do something wrong. Before and after circus shows Toby worked outside at the food stand, and during shows he had to walk amongst the audience selling peanuts or watered-down lemonade. And woe to Toby if he didn’t make enough sales.
The boy was so miserable selling refreshments that some customers handed him extra money when they made a purchase, and a few people slipped him coins without buying anything. Before the end of the first week Toby began plotting an escape. He would save his money until he had enough to return to his hometown, then he’d beg Uncle Daniel to take him in once more. But what if Uncle Daniel wouldn’t let him come back home?
Toby had little free time, but a couple times a day he’d spend a few minutes by the monkey cage, telling his troubles to Mr. Stubbs. Old Ben had the idea that monkeys didn’t like people, and couldn’t understand anything they were told, but Toby just had to believe Mr. Stubbs cared for him.
One night, as Toby was sleeping on top of the monkey wagon as the circus traveled to the next town, there was such a crash and a jolt that he was tossed down to the ground. One of the wagon’s axles had broken, and the wagon tipped to one side, so that the monkey cage slid out, and the door flew open.
Most of the monkeys scurried away to hide in the nearby woods, but Mr. Stubbs rushed over to Toby and crouched down by the boy. Toby was able to sit up and tell his friend he wasn’t hurt, so the aged monkey ran after his younger companions.
Circus workers crowded around the broken wagon – some were assigned to make repairs, and others were sent out to round up the escaped monkeys. Toby went into the woods and found Mr. Stubbs screaming at the other monkeys, perhaps scolding them for running away. To Toby’s astonishment the monkeys were soon grouped together, holding paws. Mr. Stubbs reached out a paw to Toby, and the boy lead the chain of paw-holding monkeys back to the wagon.
The circus owner was shouting orders when everyone turned to gape at Toby and his returning companions. The boy was called a hero, and the owner declared he’d earned a reward. Toby asked if he could have Mr. Stubbs, and the owner gave the oldest monkey to Toby. Now the boy could take his friend home with him when they were able to escape.
From then on Toby would take Mr. Stubbs out of the cage each night, and the two would sleep together. On Sundays – the circus workers’ day off – Toby found a wooded area so Mr. Stubbs could climb and play. The boy had made a cloth bag to hold all of the coins he was saving, and one Sunday Mr. Stubbs pulled that bag out of Toby’s pocket and seemed fascinated by it. Toby went to great pains to explain how important that money was, and he was sure his friend understand.
But one night Toby awoke atop the wagon and knew something was wrong. Mr. Stubbs had stolen the money bag and was tossing each coin to the ground, one by one. Oh how Toby scolded, and asked how the monkey could have thrown away their means of escape.
Old Ben said that just proved monkeys couldn’t be trusted, and didn’t really become friends with anybody. The wagon driver had spent his life working for circuses, and told Toby it wasn’t all that bad of a life, but if the boy really wanted to leave there was nothing he could do except start again to save up money. But each day took Toby farther from home, if indeed he still had a home he could return to.
I won’t tell the ending, but will remind you that the novel’s subtitle is Ten Weeks With a Circus, so that means Toby doesn’t have to spend a lifetime as a circus boy, though – spoiler alert – he’ll experience sorrow before his adventure ends.
Toby Tyler was first serialized in Harper’s Young People in 1877, and came out as a book in 1881. The novel remained popular for several generations, and a 1960 Walt Disney movie was based on the story.
I found it an interesting look into the circus world of the late 1800s. Toby becomes friends with the Living Skeleton and the Fat Lady, who’s real names were Samuel and Lily Treat. The kind and loving couple were never referred to in a derogatory way. They and the other unusual-looking people who spent time being on exhibit considered themselves to be respectable workers, and Toby always used his best manners when in their company.
The story is considered to be the first of the “bad boy” novels, but readers soon learn that there is nothing really bad about Toby. He has adventures and learns that there’s no place as important as home. If you’d like to read Toby Tyler it is available free of charge through the Gutenberg Project: