The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Lifestyles

November 13, 2011

Danya Walker: Books fictionalize P.T. Barnum, famous circus

JOPLIN, Mo. — This is my first official review for the Joplin Globe since becoming the Assistant Circulation Supervisor for the Joplin Public Library. I’ve been with the library for five years now, and have been reading voraciously since I was a small child.

In fact, my family jokes that the reason my actual birthday is weeks past my due date is that I was finishing the book I was reading. But it would never take me that long to finish a book.

I’ve been writing reviews for a while, including a library staff blog which people can check out at www.joplinloves2read.blogspot.com to see what library employees are reading and enjoying. Plus, I love making reading suggestions to patrons because if I haven’t read a book myself, I can usually say if a certain book or author is popular with other people.

The two books chose this week are Stacy Carlson’s “Among the Wonderful” and “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” by Melanie Benjamin. Both books are fictionalized looks at P.T. Barnum and some of the fabulously different people who helped make him famous and wealthy.

~ “Among the Wonderful” covers Barnum purchasing Scudder’s American Museum in New York City and renaming it after himself. He peopled it with interesting “freaks” and intriguing exhibits, which included signs leading people to see the amazing egress, which is the fancy term for exit.

It’s unbelievable how many people would leave the museum because of this and have to repay to enter.

The novel is told from the alternating viewpoints of Ana Swift, “the world’s only giantess,” and Emile Guillaudeu, long-term taxidermist for Scudder who is heartbroken at the changes Barnum is instituting.

Ana works to help protect the other human oddities and acts, grudgingly at first, while coming to terms with her own sense of who she is as a woman and a giantess. Emile has his self-worth tied up in his work at the museum and feels it threatened by each new change. He must decide how much it is worth fighting for.

The two viewpoints worked together to create a wonderful behind-the-scenes look at not only an interesting man, but also an intriguing time in American history. I have always been fascinated by human oddities and this introduced me to a side of Barnum I had never known. He was definitely a larger than life character, who played on human nature to earn his living and create a lasting legacy that lives on even today.

~ “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” by Melanie Benjamin features another look at P.T. Barnum through one of his biggest moneymakers.

Lavinia Warren Bump might have been less than three feet tall, but her personality and determination more than made up for any shortcomings in height. In a time when women were limited only to marriage or the careers of nursing and teaching, Lavinia traveled much of America as a perfect miniature lady, first with Wood’s traveling steamboat, and then with P.T. Barnum.

Just a few short months after joining Barnum’s museum, Lavinia married General Tom Thumb (also know as Charles Stratton) and the two became a superstar couple, with details of their wedding pushing the Civil War off the front pages of the newspaper. They were even invited to the White House by the Lincolns as part of their honeymoon tour. Following Lavinia’s life up to just after her husband’s death, this book covers one of America’s most captivating women.

This was an outstanding fiction work about a woman whose story has been largely ignored. She traveled much of the world, including Japan and Australia, met many reigning heads of countries, and shook more hands than probably anybody else in her time. This book was well written, entertaining, and a treat for anyone who enjoys historical fiction.

One of my guilty pleasures has always been a fascination with freaks and other human oddities, such as the Siamese twins Chang & Eng, Zip the Pinhead, Jo-Jo the Dog-faced Boy and other personalities who worked for Barnum. Both of these books fit that perfectly, held my interest, and brought to life a little-explored part of American history.

They both can be found in the new fiction at the Joplin Public Library.

Danya Walker is the assistant circulation supervisor for the Joplin Public Library.

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