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Stephens Gerard Malone

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Jumbo (2023) 3 exemplars


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Jumbo, Stephens Gerard Malone’s latest masterful melding of fact and fiction, is an unflinching, at times brutally heartrending, portrait of 19th-century circus life. The story begins in Cape Breton. Nell’s impoverished mother has been exploiting her daughter’s diminutive stature at the local market, charging folks a penny for a peek of the doll-size youngster, spicing up the entertainment value by rouging Nell’s cheeks and getting her to sing and dance. Word spreads, and soon Nell’s act has drawn the attention of a woman who strikes a deal with Nell’s mother and spirits the girl south to the US, where Nell ends up a featured performer in the famous Barnum & Bailey circus. By 1875 Nell “Little Eyes” Kelly is P.T. Barnum’s star attraction, a miniature celebrity whose fame has spread far and wide, to the extent that Barnum takes her to England to meet Queen Victoria. But Barnum, a consummate showman and hard-nosed opportunist, is always on the lookout for the next big thing, and when in 1882 he purchases a giant African elephant named Jumbo from the London Zoo, Nell’s celebrity takes a nosedive. The narrative is third-person, told from Nell’s perspective as someone who has made a living out of being gawked at and has every reason to fear redundancy when the circus spotlight shifts to her gargantuan four-legged colleague. But Nell knows intimately the hardship and squalor of circus life behind the scenes and, witnessing day after day the suffering inflicted on helpless animals, including Jumbo, her bitterness does not last. Malone’s novel chronicles the intimate, sometimes difficult, ultimately tragic bond that springs up between Nell, Jumbo and the elephant’s devoted trainer and protector, Englishman Matthew Scott, for whom Nell develops tender feelings (to which Scott, most of the time adrift in an alcoholic fog, remains oblivious). Nell quickly adjusts to her diminished position within the circus hierarchy and willingly steps aside to let Jumbo take centre stage. Over time, as she gains the animal’s trust, the two become protective of each other until, one fateful night in 1885 outside St. Thomas, a town in Ontario, disaster strikes. As he’s demonstrated in numerous previous historical fictions, Stephens Gerard Malone knows how to immerse his reader in precise period detail, in this case persuasively evoking the utilitarian, unsentimental spirit of the times with sharp dialogue and equally sharply drawn characters whose destinies we follow with great interest and empathy. The reader will not be surprised to learn that prevailing attitudes in late 19th-century America were favourable to neither women nor animals, governed as they were by a male power structure that valued little beyond accumulating wealth and maintaining its dominance. Barnum and his ilk were businessmen first and foremost, and the circus business was all about selling entertainment. Barnum acquired performers for his “menagerie,” exploited their talents for as long as it was profitable and discarded them without a second thought when they were no longer fit to serve his purpose. The unhappy tale of Jumbo the circus elephant does the human race no credit. Malone sugarcoats nothing, serving up a brimming plateful of harsh reality. (Reader be warned: the cruelty depicted in these pages is occasionally breathtaking). But ultimately, Jumbo is a moving account of resilience and survival against huge odds and demonstrates that the human-animal bond has the power to provide solace under the most trying of circumstances.… (més)
icolford | Hi ha 1 ressenya més | Apr 13, 2024 |
Such a fabulous book. Wrenching, sad, triumphant by turns, this is the tale of Little Eyes Nell and Jumbo the elephant, and their time in PTBarnum’s “employment”.
Nell meets Jumbo and his keeper, Scotty when Barnum arranges to purchase him during an exhibition tour in London. Nell, the world’s smallest woman, and Jumbo, the world’s biggest elephant, become an unmissable double act.
But it isn’t that story that makes this such an exceptional book. Malone creates a rich, deep, and complex world for his tale. Finishing it, I feel lonely for (most of) the characters (there’s a baddie I am quite glad to see the end of). The tragedy of the treatment of animals and people in circuses is well- described without being melodramatic.
Well worth a read and an example of how to do this kind of story. A writer’s read.
… (més)
Dabble58 | Hi ha 1 ressenya més | Nov 11, 2023 |


½ 4.5