Moss-Haired Girl is complex story of family lore

Photo courtesy of Anvil Press.

R.H. Slansky’s 2014 novella Moss-Haired Girl is a fictional autobiography of former circus performer, Zara Zalinzi annotated by the fictional author Joshua Chapman Green. The writing includes a detailed description of the fictional author’s introduction, as well as footnotes which offer further commentary on Zalinzi’s autobiography.

The autobiography is noted to include many falsifications, some exaggerations, and perhaps intentional misplacement of facts. The reader is informed of any contrary details through Green’s detailed footnotes, and is presented with a believable account of the life of circus performers during the 19th Century.

A notable feature of the novella is its use of narrative prose, which calls to attention the nature of the writing process. The book also presents a unique view into the curious nature of the circus, circus life, and the reliability of family lore.

Photo courtesy of Anvil Press.
Photo courtesy of Anvil Press.

The story-within-a-story follows Zara Zalinzi, a former circus performer who worked under the role of the Moss-Haired Girl or Circassian Princess; the titles appear to be interchangable, though for unspecified reasons. Zara was supposedly born under the name of Sarah Salinsky, and she travelled with a circus company under a director she called the Showman, who, according to Green, was most likely the “illustrious H.R. Putnam.”

The name H.R. Putnam seems to be a reference to real-life infamous showman P.T. Barnum, who founded a circus known as Barnum & Bailey Circus in America in 1919.

Throughout the novel, Green points out the clever nature of Zara’s writing and draws attention to the “facts” Zara paints in the autobiography in comparison to the evidence he has gathered through his research. This includes her use of unintentional — and sometimes intentional — misspelling of words and meanings to displace the reader’s full awareness of the actual facts.

One footnote that repeatedly appears focuses on Green’s search for the Salinsky family history, where he often recounts finding plausible listings of people mentioned in her autobiography under different variations of their surnames. It is interesting to note that the spelling of Zara’s actual last name, Salinsky, is similar to the spelling of real-life author R.H. Slansky’s family name. 

As the story progresses, more information and details about Zara’s life are presented through the footnotes, rather than the actual autobiography. At the same time, the differences between the “facts” and Zara’s version offers a deeper connection and understanding of her motivations, and the methods through which she chooses to write her truth. 

One fine example comes when Green discovers the true nature of Zara’s origin. Zara presents her mother as the daughter of a prestigious family living in Virginia, United States. Green points out the lack of evidence in the family registry, and the likelihood that her mother was actually a runaway slave of African-American descent. 

The contrary facts and the details of Green’s research are merely speculative, but they show in detail how simple truths can be hidden beneath other equally simple, yet falsified or exaggerated, untruths.   

Moss-Haired Girl is an enjoyable, light read with stylistic flair. Though Green’s annotations are ultimately just as fictitious as Zara’s autobiography, the elements of Slansky’s writing and the novella’s presentation offer the reader plenty to reflect upon.