Little People by Jane Sullivan
|Little People by Jane Sullivan|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: This is a deceptive novel starting as a fictionalised history, shifting gear into a mystery and finishing as a full-steamed adventure. It revels in a time when science defied logic and the only sustainable lifestyle for the physically different was to be gawped at by the paying public. Fascinating and just a little bit different from your usual tale of everyday Victorian folk.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 432||Date: June 2012|
|Publisher: Allen & Unwin|
|External links: Author's website|
Unemployed governess Mary Ann rescues what seems to be a child from the currents of the Yarra River in Australia. However, the 'child' turns out to be none other than Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, 'midget' and star of PT Barnum's touring 'Lilliputian' show. As a token of gratitude for her act of heroism the troupe's tour manager, Sylvester Bleeker, offers Mary Ann work and a solution to her dilemma. For she is not only out of work and alone... and pregnant. She's made to feel welcome and a sense of belonging at last although all isn't what it seems. She may well be everything that Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia have been looking for but that may not be a good thing. Even the title itself isn't all it seems and has an additional meaning, not just a reference to the small of stature. Mary Ann gradually realises that, as a lone single parent, she would be destitute (and everything that meant at that time) without the troupe. She too is a little person, but of no account rather than reduced height.
English-born Australian journalist Jane Sullivan has researched contemporary biographies and documents to weave fiction with truth in this her second novel. One of the few ways in which Victorian 'freaks of nature' could make a living, be they undersized or just different, was in a circus, living museum or travelling show of some sort and, where showmen and employers of 'freaks' were concerned, PT Barnum was the best. Parents used to wave their children off into Barnum's care in the same way that parents today would wave their young ones off to university. To them it didn't seem that bad a lifestyle. Barnum's 'Lilliputians' were the pop stars of their day, a fact illustrated by the 10,000 people who attended Charles Stratton's funeral. The author introduces us to the Strattons, Lavinia's sister Minnie and the wonderfully named George Washington Nutt, lifting the lid on the rivalry and the emotional, painful sacrifices their disabilities engendered as well as reproducing the feeling of life in the limelight.
Little People is definitely value for money being effectively four books in one. It starts off as a historical novel with each 'little' person telling a little of their story in aptly named 'sideshows'. The second thread seamlessly slides into a mystery as Mary Ann begins to wonder if she's been told the whole truth and then finally the pace picks up and Mary Ann is in the middle of a Saturday morning picture show adventure. The fourth book kicks in right at the end when Jane Sullivan provides an epilogue, honestly differentiating the fact from the fiction and revealing how the featured performers ended their days.
On reflection, once I'd finished, I did wonder if the whole story was a little melodramatic. However, this being the Victorian era, moustache-twirling baddies are totally in keeping and, to be honest, I didn't notice whilst I was involved in it. I was totally enveloped in a world where showmanship was used to hide more than smoke and mirrors, where genetics remained undiscovered making way for the assumption that traits are inherited by magnetism and where mermaids, tiger-men and bearded ladies not only exist but are celebrated.
Once the novel-engendered euphoria has passed, Little People also left me with a feeling of vague disquiet. We may feel superior to those Victorian minds and think that the time of the freak show has passed but examination of the programme guide for certain TV channels may actually indicate otherwise. History does indeed repeat itself, it seems.
I would like to thank the publisher for giving Bookbag a copy of this book for review.
If you've enjoyed this and would like to read more about the life of travelling performers around this time, perhaps you'd enjoy The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott or, if you prefer your travelling performers with a slight twist, The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett.
You can read more book reviews or buy Little People by Jane Sullivan at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy Little People by Jane Sullivan at Amazon.com.
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