April 21, 2011

(++++) SMALL SURPRISES, REAL AND MAKE-BELIEVE

Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature. By George Sullivan. Clarion. $20.

Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist: Book Four—The Unicorn’s Tale. By R.L. LaFevers. Illustrated by Kelly Murphy. Houghton Mifflin. $14.99.

     Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) was so good a natural actor that he “became the most prominent stage performer of the day, not only in America but around the world. This was no small achievement in a time before global mass media.” So why have most people today never heard of Stratton? Because what he is remembered for is his size and his stage name: General Tom Thumb. A happy, mischievous child, Stratton stopped growing early, never attaining a height above 25 inches. It was as a curiosity that consummate showman Phineas Taylor (P.T.) Barnum wanted to display Tom Thumb – but Barnum, ever alert to promotional opportunities, thought the tiny man would be more popular if he could “sing, dance, mime, and impersonate famous people.” So Barnum took Stratton under his wing, and the two developed a decades-long relationship that started before the boy’s fifth birthday and became one of mutual respect and admiration – not the crass exploitation to which many other so-called “freaks” were subjected at the time. Stratton’s failure to grow was almost certainly the result of a nonfunctioning pituitary gland, but that gland’s importance was not understood for another 50 years. Stratton had proportionate dwarfism – his body looked completely normal, but was very tiny. This made him more attractive to audiences, and Barnum did a superb job of promoting the small child and, later, small man. George Sullivan’s fascinating biography, although written simply enough for young readers, will fascinate adults, too, being packed with handbills, photos and other visual reminders of 19th-century America and the entertainment world of the time. Within the chapters are sidelight discussions such as “Dwarfs in History” and “About Dwarfism,” but the central Tom Thumb story is the feature here, and it is quite an amazing one. There are pictures of the special handmade clothing that Tom wore on and off stage, excerpts from the scripts he performed, pictures showing “General Tom Thumb In His Different Characters,” a discussion of Tom’s meeting with 24-year-old Queen Victoria and his mock attack on the monarch’s barking poodle, an explanation of Tom’s performances in blackface, and an extended discussion of his marriage to 32-inch-tall Mercy Lavinia Warren. Lavinia’s story is itself quite something – she was friendly with Ulysses S. Grant, for one thing – and the tale of her meeting with and marriage to Tom (which lasted 20 years, until Tom’s death) is a fascinating one. The four pages of photos of their “Fairy Wedding” are among the highlights of the book, and their later self-promotion (having photos taken with a baby, although they never had children) shows how much of Barnum’s promotional genius both had absorbed. A more-than-three-year-long worldwide tour brought Tom, Lavinia and members of their troupe to 587 cities and towns and covered 55,000 miles – a remarkable accomplishment in the 19th century. Indeed, nearly everything about Tom Thumb is remarkable, and Sullivan’s excellent biography is a wonderful opportunity for readers to discover a small person who lived a life writ large.

     Tom Thumb’s story is true and Nate Fludd’s is entirely made up, but little things play a big part in Nate’s tale as well. The fourth book in the Nathan Fludd, Beastologist series features a major role for Greasle, the tiny gremlin who has been traveling with Nate since the first book but has always been regarded with stern suspicion by Nate’s Aunt Phil, a knowledgeable beastologist (that is, person responsible for the health and well-being of allegedly mythical creatures) and perhaps Nate’s only living close relative. The “perhaps” is as important here as Greasle is, because there is a black-sheep side of Nate’s family that certainly has a living member – the nefarious Obediah, who seems to get the better of Aunt Phil with exceptional ease and who may have information that might indicate that Nate’s parents are alive. The quest to find them is Nate’s driving force, and here it comes into conflict with the work Nate and Aunt Phil need to do to protect and assist a unicorn named Luminessa, who turns out to have a highly unusual (and small) problem of her own. The Unicorn’s Tale turns out to be more easily told because of Greasle’s help, and it is interesting to follow along as Nate learns about the many types of unicorns (in a section in which R.L. LaFevers cleverly blends real-world animals with imaginary ones, thus neatly lending the whole “unicorn” legend a veneer of reality). As in the earlier books, Kelly Murphy’s illustrations fit the narration well and increase the story’s appeal. And in this volume, Nate and (especially) Aunt Phil do not seem quite so na├»ve and easily duped by Obediah as in the previous series entry – although the bad guy still gets the better of them (or thinks he has), and still is treated by them as if he is honest and believable even though he is obviously lying to and misleading them at every turn. By the end of The Unicorn’s Tale, Aunt Phil has agreed to join Nate in a search for his parents, since she too now suspects they may be alive, although she is by no means as certain of that as Nate is. This reorientation should help make the next series entry (or entries) more exciting by having Nate and Aunt Phil working together rather than being often at cross-purposes. And having Greasle along on the quest will surely help – in this series, as often in real life, little things really can mean a lot.

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