Publisher’s Synopsis: In 1842 Phineas T. Barnum is a young man, freshly arrived in New York and still unknown to the world. With uncanny confidence and impeccable timing, he transforms a dusty natural history museum into a great ark for public imagination. Barnum’s museum, with its human wonders and extraordinary live animal menagerie, rises to become not only the nation’s most popular attraction, but also a catalyst that ushers America out of a culture of glassed-in exhibits and into the modern age of entertainment.
In this kaleidoscopic setting, the stories of two compelling characters are brought to life. Emile Guillaudeu is the museum’s grumpy taxidermist, who is horrified by the chaotic change Barnum brings to his beloved institution. Ana Swift is a professional giantess plagued by chronic pain and jaded by a world of gawkers. The differences between these two are many: one is isolated and spends his working hours making dead things look alive, while the other has people pushing against her, and reacting to her, every day. But they both move toward change, one against his will, propelled by a paradigm shift happening whether he likes it or not, and the other because she is struggling to survive. In many shapes and forms, metamorphosis is at the core of Among the Wonderful. Pursuing this theme, the book weaves a world where upper Manhattan is still untrammeled wilderness, the Five Points is at the height of its bloody glory, and within the walls of Barnum’s museum, ancient tribal feuds play out in the midst of an unlikely community of marvels.
This might just be my favorite genre, but I don’t know to call it. Historical facts, real figures that a fictional story is written around. Speculative real historical fiction? If anyone knows the name, please share!
I’m about halfway through this book. Set in Manhattan, the narrative flips back and forth between Emile and Ana, Ana being the more sympathetic and my personal favorite of the two.
It’s startling to read about New York during this period in history. In my mind, there have always been towering skyscrapers, taxis, and milling crowds of people. I love the details of the marshes and the river that thrived then, and the clear lines that were the city boundaries.
Emile is stuck in the past. A naturalist, he is afraid of the changes Barnum is bringing to the Museum in the form of human attractions. He thrives on order, and dreams of performing taxidermy on his dead wife. Ana is trapped in the present by the sheer size of her body. At 7 1/2 feet tall, she was displayed by her parents at a young age as a way to pay off the family debts. The two of them are surrounded by an assortment of other people and animal “oddities” – a beluga whale is kept in a tiny tank in the middle of the employee residences, a pair of Siamese twins in love with each other, albino children, monkeys, and a family of jugglers to name a few.
I’m loving this book. It reminds me a bit of “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb” in that it’s set in the same time period and has an overlapping cast of characters.