In just over a year, there have been at least three novels featuring P.T. Barnum and his American Museum, each of them being told from the point-of-view of one of the human oddities Barnum featured there. The first to be published, Ellen Bryson’s The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno, featuring a romance between Fortuno, “the world’s thinnest man,” and the museum’s resident fat lady was published in late 2010. This year has seen the release of both The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (Melanie Benjamin) and Among the Wonderful by Stacy Carlson, the former title’s content being obvious, and the latter being narrated by “world’s only working giantess.”
The American Museum, operating from 1841 to 1865, was a huge success for Barnum. It featured fascinating exhibits from all over the world, including beluga whales, mummies, preserved exotic animals, Eskimos, American Indians, Australian aborigines, and a wide assortment of human oddities such as the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng. In addition to providing his human exhibitions with a wage, Barnum also housed and fed them in his museum. Over the years, an assortment of fat ladies, thin men, giants, bearded ladies, and people from the farthest corners of the world would live in close quarters on the museum’s fifth floor.
Among the Wonderful is told through the distinct voices of two such Barnum employees: Emile Guillaudeu, the taxidermist who had been employed in the museum long before Barnum acquired it, and Ana Swift, a young woman billed by Barnum as near eight feet tall and the only “working giantess” in the world. Each of them is more resigned than happy about living and working in the museum.
Guillaudeu, already traumatized by the loss of his wife to cholera, is further crushed when Barnum begins to throw out much of the work he has produced over the years. A man with no experience with live animals, Guillaudeu suddenly finds himself solely responsible for keeping a wide variety of them alive. Although Ana Swift has learned to accept the stares, finger-pointing, and looks of shock her height creates, she yearns deeply for a husband and a new life on the isolated outskirts of the American West. Both would gladly leave the museum if a better life elsewhere were possible.
Stacy Carlson paints a vivid picture of what life inside the American Museum must have been like for those who lived there. Not so surprisingly, despite the excitement felt by the nearly 15,000 daily visitors who came to the museum at its peak, life for the performers is one of drudgery and boredom. They spend long hours (even having to stroll among the crowd when not officially performing) being gawked at and jeered, and they have only each other when the last customer leaves the building. The most affecting scenes in the novel involve evening gatherings during which all the performers, no matter where they are from or what makes them physically spectacular, forget their differences and simply enjoy each other’s company for a few hours.
The best historical fiction leaves the reader with a better understanding of its historical period while, at the same time, it provides a sense of what went on in the heads of those who actually lived in the time. Among the Wonderful succeeds admirably in doing both.
Rated at: 4.0