The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman

The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman

3.98  ·   Rating details ·  3,230 Ratings  ·  652 Reviews
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The Life She Was Given
by Ellen Marie Wiseman
From acclaimed author Ellen Marie Wiseman comes a vivid, daring novel about the devastating power of family secrets--beginning in the poignant, lurid world of a Depression-era traveling circus and coming full circle in the transformative 1950s.

On a summer evening in 1931, Lilly Blackwood glimpses circus lights from the grimy window of her attic bedroom. Lilly isn't allowed to explore the meadows around Blackwood Manor. She's never even ventured beyond her narrow room. Momma insists it's for Lilly's own protection, that people would be afraid if they saw her. But on this unforgettable night, Lilly is taken outside for the first time--and sold to the circus sideshow.

More than two decades later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood has inherited her parents' estate and horse farm. For Julia, home was an unhappy place full of strict rules and forbidden rooms, and she hopes that returning might erase those painful memories. Instead, she becomes immersed in a mystery involving a hidden attic room and photos of circus scenes featuring a striking young girl.

At first, The Barlow Brothers' Circus is just another prison for Lilly. But in this rag-tag, sometimes brutal world, Lilly discovers strength, friendship, and a rare affinity for animals. Soon, thanks to elephants Pepper and JoJo and their handler, Cole, Lilly is no longer a sideshow spectacle but the circus's biggest attraction. . .until tragedy and cruelty collide. It will fall to Julia to learn the truth about Lilly's fate and her family's shocking betrayal, and find a way to make Blackwood Manor into a place of healing at last.

Moving between Julia and Lilly's stories, Ellen Marie Wiseman portrays two extraordinary, very different women in a novel that, while tender and heartbreaking, offers moments of joy and indomitable hope.

“Then again, she didn't like small talk either, so she was glad he wasn't commenting on the weather or the landscape. Life was too big and too short and too important to talk about the lack of rain or the latest gossip. She wanted to know how people felt about themselves and one another, whether they were happy or sad. She wanted to know what made them feel loved and what hurt them to the core. She wanted to know about their past, how they got where they were, and their relationships with their mothers and fathers and siblings. She wanted to know if she was the only mixed-up person in the world who felt completely and utterly alone.”

“So you see, it all depends on which side of the fence you're looking from.”


If I could give this book a million stars, I would. It was THAT good. My insides felt like they would rip apart and I wanted to scream and cry. And THAT is what makes a GREAT book. This book had me emotionally charged, to say the least.

It is the 1930's. We meet Lilly. She is a young girl kept locked in the attic by her parents - for her own good, they believe. The reason? "God forgot to give me color," says the little girl. My heart broke at this remark. Nowadays being an albino is not a big deal, but back in the 1930's.. you were considered a freak..a monster..or as Lilly's mother told abomination. In the middle of the night, her mother told her that she had a surprise for her. That she was going to let her out of the attic AND take her to a private viewing of the circus that came to town. She took her by the hand and led her out into the night into the middle of the forest. A man met them. This man worked for a freak show and the girl's mother sold her to him..And this was the life she was given..

This story impacted me in a profound way. And I do feel it necessary to warn that there are upsetting themes in this novel. As a huge advocate for the humane treatment of animals I was deeply saddened by the gross maltreatment of animals in this book. This book centered around a circus and a freak show. The treatment of the animals in the circus was very cruel and inhumane and upsetting. With that being said, it was also an accurate portrayal of the time period. I think the author did some amazing research and I felt almost like I was there..transported into that era. I think that is a truly remarkable gift for an author to have the ability to transport their reader anywhere in the world. That is the gift of reading, after all. And this book, reminded me over and over again..why it is I am so passionate about reading.
THE LIFE SHE WAS GIVEN by ELLEN MARIE WISEMAN was a moving, haunting, and heartbreaking tale with an intriguing and engaging storyline that I thoroughly enjoyed.  I have a fascination for circus themed books and this one kept me entertained and spellbound right to the very end.

ELLEN MARIE WISEMAN delivers a vivid, descriptive, and well-written read here with some uncomfortable and cringe worthy scenes that were difficult to read at times. The story is told in alternating perspectives of two very different and remarkable young women from Lilly Blackwood in the 1930’s and Julia Blackwood in the 1950’s.  I enjoyed both perspectives and stories equally. How these two women are connected to each other and their stories is the beauty of this novel.

To sum it all up it was heart-wrenching, sad, hopeful, and a compelling fast-paced read with an ending that I found to be totally satisfying and shocking.  I also love that cover and the title of this book and found both to be extremely fitting to this novel.  Would recommend!!!
The Life She Was Given is a riveting, heart-wrenching story, a book unlike anything I've ever read!! 
My heart was racing from the very first page; my heart was pulled in a million different directions. The Life She Was Given runs the gamut of emotions; tender and terrifying, heartbreaking and hopeful. Julia and Lilly, two young women, decades apart, who grew up unloved, victimized and mistreated; can they overcome their dismal childhoods, and find a path to resilience, strength, love, and happiness? This book, these characters, their stories, are going to live in my head and my heart forever.
It was 1931 and Lilly Blackwood had spent her entire short life in the attic bedroom of her parent’s house. Never allowed outside or even downstairs in case “someone saw her” - she was told by her Momma that she was an abomination. But things changed the night her Momma took her across the paddock of their land to the lights and tents of a circus which had arrived only a couple of days previously. The sights and sounds, even the smells, were frightening to Lilly – the sky big and vast. She had no idea “outside” would be like that. And when her Momma left her with the horrible man after taking money from him – and walked away, ten-year-old Lilly was devastated…

Over twenty years later, nineteen-year-old Julia Blackwood was living rough – her waitress job only just paid the rent but she had nothing left over for food. Julia had run away from home three years previously, after finally having enough of her cruel and vindictive mother. When she was notified that she had inherited her parent’s estate, she was unsure if she wanted to return. But knowing her mother would no longer be at the house made the decision easier…

Julia’s return to her childhood home brought back distressing memories for her – but when she found evidence of a mystery surrounding a circus and a young girl, Julia’s interest was piqued. What did the deep, dark secrets hide that she felt were right there? Who was this beautiful young woman? And what was hidden in the depths of the old house and its locked rooms?

The Life She Was Given by Ellen Marie Wiseman is an amazing, emotional, heart rending story of two young women and the traumatic and hopeless lives they both lived. It’s a story of evil and hope – of fleeting happiness and dark despair. And it’s a story unlike any I’ve ever read before and I thoroughly enjoyed it! My first by this author, and it won’t be my last. A most highly recommended tale. (The cover is perfect - eye catching and just right!)
Circus themed books are a hit or miss for me so I was slightly wary when starting this book. It had received some great reviews from my Goodreads friends and so I thought I’d give it a go.

The novel is told from two points of view. We first meet Lilly, in the early 1930’s. who is a little girl living locked in an attic for 10 years with nothing known of the outside world except what she reads in books and the little that she can see out of her window. She was told over and over throughout her life that she was an abomination, that if anyone saw her they would be frightened of her and maybe do her harm. “Lilly didn’t know what an abomination was, but is sounded bad. Her shoulders dropped and she sighed in the stillness of her room”.

She never had a mirror in her room but only saw a vague image of herself when it was dark outside and she saw her reflection in the window of her small room. Her mother is a religious fanatic who thinks that Lilly’s “condition” is her punishment for wishing so desperately for a child that she would sell her soul to the devil. Her father is a spineless man who does nothing to help Lilly, he instead escapes into alcohol.

When Lilly is age 10 the circus comes to town and her mother does what is almost incredible to believe, she sells her daughter to the circus. It is finally here that Lilly understands about her “condition” and makes friends and enemies among the circus people. Her story is a wonder to read and I kept wanting to get back to her story when I was reading Julia’s chapters.

We then meet Julia who is an 18 year old living in the early 1950’s. She ran away from a suffocating home environment when she was very young and is now struggling to make a life, working in a diner and living with an abusive boyfriend. She is astonished when a knock at the door brings her the news that her estranged parents have left their entire estate, Blackwood Manor, that home that she fled, to her, along with all of their assets, it is quite a fortune. She isn’t sure if she wants to return but feels that it has to be better than her current situation.

She finds that she has not only inherited Blackwood Manor but a family mystery which she is determined to solve. Through a lot of sleuthing and discovery Julia finds out the truth about the sister whom she was told had died and all of the astonishing things that had transpired while she was growing up and living in the same house. “She went into the dormer and tried to look out. She imagined a little girl, her sister, standing where she stood, looking out and wondering what else lay beyond this grimy window. Goose bumps rose on her arms. The longer she was in the room, the more nauseous she felt. Maybe there weren’t rats in the attic after all. Maybe it was her sister all along, making the noises in the ceilings and walls. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up.”

I found the writing to be very good, descriptive and rich in verse describing some incredible people. Some so self involved and evil they are hard to comprehend and others so kind, forgiving and loving that they make the world shine. The history of Blackwood Manor makes for a very interesting read and I don’t think that you will be disappointed. The fact that some of the book is based on actual fact makes the story so much more incredible.

Lilly was born an albino in the early 1930s during the depression to a family that was fairly well off during that time, the family owned Blackwood Manor and horse farm. Lilly’s mother kept her locked up in the attic until Lilly was ten years old before selling her to the Circus where she became a member of the “freak show”. All the time Lilly was locked up in the attic, hidden away from the outside world, her mother told her she was a monster and an abomination. Her mother was a religious fanatic and kept Bibles in Lilly’s tiny attic room and made her pray and read scripture devoutly. It’s hard to say if her mother was always this way with religion, or if she became that way after Lily was born, it doesn’t really say in the book, i’m guessing maybe after the birth of Lily, because, after having eight miscarriages, her mother vowed to sell her soul to the devil for a baby, and after Lilly was born with her condition, her mother believed it was because of the deal she made with the devil. Through the happenings of Lilly’s tragic and sad life it would seem like Lilly was absolutely a cursed child no doubt.

In the second chapter we meet Julia an eighteen year old girl in the 1950s. She is a struggling, barely getting by waitress in a little diner, she is not sure if she is going to have a meal that night or be able to pay her rent for the apartment she and her abusive boyfriend are living in. A private investigator shows up to the diner one night with a letter, informing Julia that she has inherited her childhood home, the home that she ran away from two years prior, is now hers. Her mother has passed and left the Blackwood Manor to her. Arriving at the creepy and possibly haunted manor, she discovers a disturbing secret that she is determined to get to the bottom of. From here bombshell after bombshell is dropped, right to the very last page. A few times I actually gasped and whispered “oh my gosh.”

I enjoyed this book immensely, this story has stuck in my mind, it really had an impact on me. The author really did a wonderful job with her research of that time period, and took some actual true events from history and weaved them into this unique skin crawling story. Knowing that a lot of the story was inspired by actual events makes this story that much more gripping. I saved this book to read at the end of my day, which for me is when I save the best books to read, it is the quietest and the time when everyone is unwinding themselves or already in bed. This is my me time. Unfortunately, this is when i’m in my bed, before going to sleep. Unfortunate because this book was too good to put down and two nights in a row I stayed up all night reading. This is a must read!
I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this book about a circus. But after reading all the reviews on Goodreads, I decided to get it as soon at came into my library. 
There are a lot of very uncomfortable things that go on like child abuse and animal abuse in the circus. A lot of family secrets throughout and the ending …. SHOCKING! I was not expecting the ending at all!! This book grabbed me from page 1 and kept me totally “hooked” from beginning to end. I did not want to put this book down and I read it in one day! This book is just so heartbreaking and for this reason, I’m giving it 5 stars.

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