September 27, 2012

(++++) BIG STUFF

The Giant and How He Humbugged America. By Jim Murphy. Scholastic. $19.99.

Jangles: A BIG Fish Story. By David Shannon. Blue Sky Press/Scholastic. $17.99.

Tales of Famous Animals. By Peter and Connie Roop. Illustrated by Zachary Pullen. Scholastic. $17.99.

      Almost forgotten today but one of the most revealing stories about the mid-19th-century United States, the tale of the Cardiff Giant is wonderfully retold by Jim Murphy in a book that is part history and part slice-of-a-very-different-life.  It is a story of the days after the Civil War, a time when people were hungry for diversion and trying to digest such upheavals as the theory of evolution and the possibility of suffrage being extended to African Americans.  The year was 1869, the date October 16, when a mysterious 10-foot-tall likeness of a man was dug up on a farm in the small town of Cardiff, New York.  Was it a petrified human, firm evidence of the truth of Biblical stories such as the one about David and the giant Goliath?  Could it be an ancient member of the Onondaga tribe?  Was it a statue?  Did it relate somehow to other discoveries of the century, such as the Great Zeuglodon, a supposed sea monster whose bones were put on display in 1845?  What did it mean?  It turns out that, for a few years, it meant considerable attention to a small farming community and a not-inconsiderable amount of money for various people involved in the discovery, excavation and display of the Cardiff Giant.  And it turns out that it was, in the terminology of the time, a humbug – a statue, yes, but not an ancient one.  It was manufactured purely to fool people and make money, and it was such a big attraction for a time that none other than P.T. Barnum tried to buy it for display – and, when he failed, made a duplicate statue and put that one on display, actually pulling in more visitors than did the original Cardiff Giant when the two statues were in competition in New York City.  This is fascinating stuff, sometimes funny and sometimes sad, always enthralling and always indicative of how different 19th-century America was from the nation today – and how similar it was, too, with people hungry for the marvelous, the outr√©, for celebrities and wonders and any possible distraction from humdrum and difficult everyday life.  Excellent pictures of the Cardiff Giant, of advertisements and handbills of the time, of other “wonders” (such as Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” and General Tom Thumb), enliven a story that is plenty lively already, while pictures of the perpetrators of the fraud and of others caught up in it humanize a tale that could otherwise become a dry recitation of long-ago historical events.  The characters are fascinating, particularly George Hull, the man at the center of the fraud, who “was in many ways a common criminal, but he was also clever and reasonably well-read,” having studied Darwin’s theory of evolution and read about fossils and geology.  And Hull perpetrated the fraud around the time that Barnum, seeking to publicize his “mermaid” and draw in the crowds, “wrote a series of bogus letters to New York City newspapers” – which the papers printed – and then hired a friend to pretend to be a learned scientist with knowledge of mermaids (the papers ate that up, too).  The United States was in a time of painful transition, with people unsure what to believe in and hungering for the latest scientific information in terms they could understand – as willing to believe in marvels then as in the importance of the thoughts of reality-show contestants today.  In some ways, the more things have changed, the more they have remained the same.  But in others, the tale of the Cardiff Giant could only have happened when it did and where it did.  Young readers and adults alike will be captivated by Murphy’s expert time travel to an earlier era that may have been more innocent in some ways but in others was just as confused as our own.

      Speaking of big things and hoaxes, anglers are famous for their tales of “the big one that got away,” and that is the basis of Jangles, a story of a big one – a really big one – that didn’t quite get away.  A pleasantly written and nicely illustrated fairy tale about a boy, a fishing rod and a gigantic fish whose name comes from the huge number of “shiny metal lures and rusty old fishhooks of all shapes and sizes” in his jaw that “clinked and clattered as he swam,” David Shannon’s book starts as a mere “fish tale”: Jangles eats eagles that perch on trees near the lake, but once saved a baby that fell into the lake from a canoe – typical farfetched folk-tale elements.  But then the narrator, an adult telling his son the story of what happened to him when he was a boy, talks about his personal connection with Jangles, which he says involved actually hooking the fish and being pulled to the bottom of the lake for a conversation: “His voice was so low and soothing that it seemed perfectly natural that this fish was talking, so I wasn’t afraid at all.”  Jangles tells the boy “amazing, wonderful stories” before letting him go.  But then the boy turns on Jangles and captures him – and then the boy realizes that it would be wrong not to let Jangles go back to his own way of life.  So the boy lets him go and even does Jangles a favor – which results in the boy having “proof” that he shows his son at the end of the book.  But it is exactly the sort of “proof” that proves nothing and returns the whole tale to the realm of fantastic “fish story,” where it began.  And a most delightful fish story it is.

      Tales of Famous Animals is neither pure fact nor pure fiction – it has elements of both, although the facts dominate.  In these 17 stories, the animals themselves are real: Alexander the Great’s horse, Bucephalus; Seaman, the Newfoundland that accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition; Old Abe, a bald eagle mascot during the Civil War; Pelorus Jack, a dolphin that guided a number of ships to safety near New Zealand; Mrs. Chippy, a cat the accompanied the Shackleton expedition to the Antarctic and turned out to be a male; and others.  The animals’ exploits, though, are sometimes clouded by myth, particularly in the case of the long-ago stories.  Nevertheless, Peter and Connie Roop tell the tales with relish and with as much attention to known facts as possible.  The grand events through which the animals lived are often less interesting here than the small details – such as the fact that Old Abe the eagle had his picture taken (a rare event at the time) and then autographed his photos by piercing them with his beak, and the time that Theodore Roosevelt’s son Quentin brought three snakes into the Oval Office during a presidential meeting.  Young readers may already know some of these stories, such as the ones about Balto the sled dog and Seabiscuit the racehorse, which have been made into movies.  Other tales have been eclipsed by events, such as that of Lonesome George, the giant Gal√°pagos tortoise, who recently died.  But there is plenty to learn and plenty to enjoy here – although Zachary Pullen’s oil-on-linen illustrations are not as successful as the Roops’ text, giving an air of inappropriate unreality to some scenes.  Pullen’s style makes sense in the case of the fictional Smokey Bear, shown with a photo backdrop of a forest (although the Roops make an error here in the words of the “Smokey the Bear” song).  But the illustrations-in-front-of-photos for Andre the harbor seal and the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing are much less successful, lending an unfortunate appearance of fiction to real events and animals.  Nevertheless, there is so much interesting material here about so many fascinating animals – and the humans with whom they interacted – that readers will find themselves captivated by the stories of some of the many amazing creatures with whom people share the planet.

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