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.