Friday, November 18, 2011

Marian Librarian reviews: The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming

Circus Week continues!

I had heard some glowing recommendations of this book from some colleagues and so, when trying to think of a book to go with my Circus Week, I sought it out.

The book is The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum by Candace Fleming.

Unlike some, I actually have a great affection for the Circus.  I'm aware of the controversies surrounding it.  I know all of the sort of seediness that people attribute to it, but I still enjoy it.

Barnum didn't invent the circus but he made it sparkle.  He found his calling in being a showman and was unapologetic about it.  He knew what people wanted and he gave it to them.

The story follows the entirety of Barnum's life, so truthfully the Circus doesn't factor in until very late in the story as he didn't even get into the circus game until he was 60 and didn't meet his business partner Bailey until he was 77.

Before that, you hear of his childhood, where he learned the value of practical jokes and the fact that he was an idea man rather than a hard worker.  It talks about how he met a local celebrity in his hometown of Bethel: an elephant named Old Bet.  Her owner made a small fortune taking her from town to town, so it was then that Barnum famously learned: "When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant."

Much of the story is dedicated to Bailey's exploits with his "American Museum," a place of curiosities, oddities, and animals.  It was chock full of things and people we would associate with documentaries on the Discovery Channel or Ripley's Believe it or Not.  This is the place where Barnum got his infamous reputation as a liar or "humbug."  His philosophy was that he just used his "humbugs" to draw people in, then entertained them.  They always got their money's worth.

It's interesting to melt the man with the seedy side-show image.  He was a deeply religious man, a friend to children, and the acts that some would say that he exploited, like the small man known as General Tom Thumb whom considered him a great friend.  He was not a perfect man by any means, but he was also not a mustache-twirling villain.  It's a fascinating look at the beginnings of an American institution and the man behind it.

There are anecdotes in here that are stories in themselves: how Barnum moved Circus's from 1 to 3 rings, the story of Jumbo the great elephant, the first circus train.  Also, stories of the people who crossed into his life: his partner James Bailey, the diva Jenny Lind (the inspiration for the Ugly Duckling who broke Hans Christian Anderson's heart), Mr. and Mrs. "Tom Thumb," and the oldest woman alive Joice Heth.  It's the kind of book where you'll find yourself reading passages to people out loud until you just press the book in their hands anyway.  Great for a kid who needs to do a biography project and the adult who's as curious as Barnum's audiences were.

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