Spotlight on We Are All His Creatures (Deborah Noyes), Excerpt, Plus Giveaway! ~ (US/Canada Only)
Today we're excited to spotlight We Are All His Creatures by Deborah Noyes.
Read on for more about Deborah and her book, an excerpt, plus an giveaway!
Meet Deborah Noyes!
Deborah Noyes is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including the young adult short story collection The Ghosts of Kerfol and the young adult novel Plague in the Mirror.
Meet We Are All His Creatures!
In a series of interwoven fictionalized stories, Deborah Noyes gives voice to the marginalized women in P. T. Barnum's family -- and the talented entertainers he built his entertainment empire on.
Much has been written about P. T. Barnum -- legendary showman, entrepreneur, marketing genius, and one of the most famous nineteenth-century personalities. For those who lived in Barnum's shadow, however, life was complex. P. T. Barnum's two families -- his family at home, including his two wives and his daughters, and his family at work, including Little People, a giantess, an opera singer, and many sideshow entertainers -- suffered greatly from his cruelty and exploitation. Yet, at the same time, some of his performers, such as General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), became wealthy celebrities who were admired and feted by presidents and royalty. In this collection of interlinked stories illustrated with archival photographs, Deborah Noyes digs deep into what is known about the people in Barnum's orbit and imagines their personal lives, putting front and center the complicated joy and pain of what it meant to be one of Barnum's "creatures."
~ Excerpt ~
We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman
by Deborah Noyes
The Mermaid — August 1842, New York City
Mother snored on the daybed. There was a mermaid swimming just upstairs somewhere, in the museum, and Mother snored.
Caroline lifted her mother’s heavy arm to tug out the news sheet, letting it drop again. The mermaid was in the paper today. Daddy’s museum was often in the news, but more so since the ladyfish arrived.
Her father had read the article aloud over breakfast. An engraving showed the creature at rest on a rock beside two elegant sister mermaids. She stared into a hand mirror, and her breasts were bare. Caroline knew Mother was scandalized by the set of her mouth and the way she blew on her tea to avoid their eyes. “Questions?” she chirped, in a tone that warned, don’t ask.
Caroline shrugged. Though she was nine and Helen two, they saw breasts all the time — Mother’s, while baby Frances sucked.
When their mother fed Frances right at the breakfast table that morning, Daddy had called her a “fishwife.” At first, this confused Caroline. Did he mean Charity Barnum was the ladyfish, the same mermaid on display upstairs? But how? Mother mostly stood by the window or dozed on the daybed, as now, but she never left their sight. And when she unfastened her dressing gown to feed Frances, her bosom did not in any way resemble the graceful mermaids’.
Caroline knew to guard her questions. She would rather solve them herself when she could, and Madge had used the same word last week, only differently. Fishwife meant “common,” Caroline deduced with pride.
But this morning she had another question, one she couldn’t answer herself.
Daddy replied with his back to her, riffling through a pile of contracts. “It’s the medicine.”
Answers made more questions sometimes, especially Daddy’s answers, but with his back to her, he couldn’t see her furrowed brow. He had found the page he was looking for and scanned it triumphantly, crushing the paper in his hands. “That’s what makes her sleep so much.” He looked up sympathetically. “The medicine.”
Whatever was on the paper had brightened his mood. Daddy felt sorry for his “wild three,” he confided, kneeling by them, but “for the old girl’s sake”— he pointed his dimpled chin at Mother on the lounge —“you’ll have to keep your voices down today.”
He paused over the cradle to fuss with Frances’s blanket. Daddy hated baby talk (there was altogether too much “pootsy-wootsymambypamby” spoken to children, he maintained) but resorted to it now to make his point. “Let my girls be doves”— he looked back at them —“and coo like this — coo, coo, coo — until she wakes.”
Two of three Barnum daughters cooed on command until Helen broke off, boldly asking the real question: “But when will Mother get up?”
A Helen question was a thorn lodged in your thumb. You carried it around until someone saw your discomfort and removed it. Daddy admired her candor — yet another reason Caroline often itched to slap Helen or shake her; however clever she might be, Helen was young enough to fall for the same games over and over. Look into my hand, Caroline would coax, opening a fist. Closer . . . see? You trust me, right?
Daddy tied a silk cravat at his throat. The hired girl would be here soon, he said. Madge came mornings to tidy and heat broth for their lunch. Sometimes, when Frances wailed for no reason and Mother shut herself in her room after Daddy left for the day, Madge bounced the furious infant round the house on her hip. “Colic,” she’d say, scowling at Mother’s door.
“You said after this week we would never drink broth again,” Helen observed with her air of being disappointed in advance. Daddy said it made her sound more like the old men who played chess outside Philosophers’ Hall, his favorite barbershop, than a child. “You said we’d dine with the Astors.”
“And I am a man of my word.”
He chucked Helen’s chin — dimpled, like his. Everyone said they looked alike, while Caroline had Mother’s sleepy eyes if not her underwater slowness — no mermaid moved like Mother. Mermaids were bullet swift.
Unless you had Daddy’s promises in writing, Mother said, he rarely kept them, and anyway he made everything up. Unlike those of the boys in school stories — who tied your braid to the back of your chair — his jokes were on whole cities. All of New York suffered Daddy’s whims and hoaxes, and he had crowned himself the Prince of Humbug.
“Receipts tripled this week, my girls.” With his document tucked under an arm, he bent to kiss their foreheads. Caroline winced when he gave the cradle a shove so sleeping Frances tipped on roily seas. “Our ladyfish will extend her stay.”
Caroline sat on her hands. It did not do to betray enthusiasm. “Please let me see the mermaid?” she blurted. “Is she beautiful like the picture?” She had other questions, too. Were the mermaid’s scales as sharp as steel blades? Did you have to cover your ears when she sang or be deafened?
But Mr. Barnum was needed at the office. “Proceeds will not count themselves.” He tipped his hat.
“I would like to see the mermaid also,” Helen added, almost too quietly to be heard.
Caroline gasped. The audacity. Daddy despised repetition.
But he turned his wrath on her, not Helen. He leaned on Caroline’s chair arms and nearly knocked his forehead against hers while she held admirably still. “Nownownow,” he teased with a mean twinkle in his eye — in the same tsk voice he sometimes used on Mother, who withdrew into herself like a duck into its feathers — and out he went, the hall door clicking shut behind him.
Patience is a virtue.
The first-floor apartment, which had once been a billiard hall, felt profoundly hot and stuffy. Caroline scowled at Helen.
In the sitting room, where they waited for Madge while Mother snored, it might have been day or it might have been night.
Caroline put a hand to her heart, as Mother often did, concentrating.
It would be a long morning.
Patience is a virtue.
When the lump in the cradle began to stir, the girls exchanged looks, united in dread.
Caroline rocked Frances with her right hand and lifted the newspaper with her left. The engraved advertisement said the city had “mermaid fever.”
Closing her eyes, she imagined the world past the long hallway with its hollow ticking grandfather clock, past the filmy glass of the entryway window.
The street would be full of steaming manure and spit, and a snuffling pig or two. Pretty ladies in bustles and tall bonnets were stepping from carriages, too many to count, with their escorts — one after another, like paper dolls tipping forth from a fathomless black. The museum lived between two worlds, Daddy liked to say. It lured fashionable customers from uptown right alongside people from the Bowery tenements and Five Points.
She could hear his brass band making a clamor on the balcony. Above that, on the roof of the museum, people would be lining up for ice cream. But inside — oh, inside! — there were serpent charmers, ropedancers, glassblowers, and industrious fleas. There was a Gypsy fortuneteller and a professor of phrenology who read your skull by feeling the bumps on your head. This and a ladyfish . . . right upstairs. Yet Caroline Cordelia Barnum (and Helen), the proprietor’s own flesh and blood, had never even been inside.
Daddy had no trouble boasting about everything they were missing, especially at bedtime, though the evening ritual of parting was more satisfying than the morning’s.
Daddy always tucked them in at night, and his excuses were better than a storybook. “You will kindly forgive Mr. Barnum,” he would say, “proprietor of the American Museum, who must now slip away to see to the important work of lighting up the night sky.”
While she and Helen waited to fall asleep each night, they watched the beam of his Drummond light circle Broadway, sweeping the street below and the front and sides of the museum. It crept in their window, slashed the ceiling, and turned dizzy circles before retreating again.
Mr. Barnum’s other important work, he reminded them — covering first Helen and then Caroline to the chin with their blankets — was to tuck in the animals.
There were huge placards all around the outside of the museum, and it was Helen’s job, at this point in the ritual, to make Daddy list the animals they advertised: orangutan and polar bear, elephant and ostrich, camel leopard, tapir, pelican, eagle, gnu, lion, kangaroo, peacock, elk, rattlesnake, tiger, fur seal, and cormorant.
She had memorized the menagerie in a particular order, every animal, and made him start over if he omitted anyone.
When Daddy didn’t have time for a proper goodnight, he would tuck them in with the museum catalog for their bedtime book, inviting them to imagine, in their dreams, the midnight snuffling and turning of creatures and the soft bickering of giants and dwarfs playing cards. “And when you wake up,” he would say with his big laugh, “I’ll be at the table waiting.”
And he promised that on the day they finally got upstairs to visit his “wilderness of realities,” they would have the whole of five floors to themselves, and the mermaid, too.
They would watch the sun go down from the roof deck.
They would be served cake with buttercream icing and dishes of cherry ice cream.
They would cheer the fireworks.
But not today.
Today they were stuck at home again, with baby Frances fixing to wake up and wail.
Caroline set down the newspaper and rocked the cradle even harder, with all her might, but the bundle now thrashing in slow motion began to whimper.
That’s how it started, as if someone were plucking its lip (Caroline still thought of Frances as an “it”) like a string on a guitar. Then came a soft sputter that escalated into an alarming, mind-numbing yowl from which there was no escape until Mother stuffed a nipple in its mouth.
It couldn’t hold up the head lolling on the pile of rolled fat that was its neck. It had a red face and, under downy hair, a scabby scalp. Frances wasn’t an entirely ugly baby, not anymore. She had grown into herself and had an elfin, pretty form. Mother called her a sprite. But she — it — was shiftless and greedy like all babies, and there was something growing up in her eyes that Caroline didn’t like.
As little sisters went, Helen was a nuisance, but she could keep still and occupy herself. Frances always seemed hungry — all sucking mouth and beady eyes — and unsatisfied, no matter how often she was fed or changed. Her infant hunger was in her whole being, not just her belly, and now the sputtering became gasps, the urgent little lungs sucking in air. Any moment, that air would exit as a wail.
“Your turn, Helen,” Caroline snapped, and let the cradle fall still as the wailing began. They both stared down helplessly.
Helen lifted the tin of matches from the mantel and dropped it in the cradle. Two red fists caught the makeshift rattle and shook, spilling wooden matches all over the crocheted blanket. The sputtering escalated.
“Don’t!” Caroline seized the tin. “She’ll burn the museum down!”
The little fists flailed, knocking Caroline’s wrists and knuckles. She sighed, pinching matches from the fabric. “Mother,” she said coolly, “Frances is awake.”
Caroline returned the matchbox to the mantel, crossed her arms, and waited for their mother to stir from her stupor. “I know you hear me,” she added under her breath.
Helen’s eyes widened.
Mother rolled toward them, her banana curls shamelessly flattened on one side. Her face looked old, and there was a painful crease from the upholstery on her cheek. “Hand her,” she murmured.
Loosening her gown, Mother took Frances and rolled over with her.
There was a mermaid upstairs.
Caroline (and Helen) wanted to see it.
Caroline wanted to see all that the catalog called “monstrous, scaly, and strange,” from the trained chickens and the dog that operated a knitting machine to the puppets and the python.
It was their own museum, and Daddy had promised, repeatedly, but he was too busy.
Mother must have felt them both at her back, cooing in their thoughts, biding their time until Madge arrived to fix lunch. “Thank you, girls,” she murmured to the wall, and Caroline had never heard a voice so hoarse and thick with sorrow.
Frances would suck and sleep.
Mother, who evaded the topic of the museum altogether, would sleep.
The arrows of the hands would move round and round the face of the sun on the grandfather clock.
On the hour, the clock’s bell would chime and fall silent.
Caroline walked back to Helen and took her by the hand. She tugged her out to the kitchen. “I have a plan.” She knelt to whisper.
* * *
She had to give Helen credit for stealth and daring. They were as quiet as pantry mice. Helen did as she was told and took the coins from the milkman’s can, then tucked them into her slipper. It was hot and bright and loud out on the street. Once they were through the door, Helen gripped Caroline’s hand so hard her bones creaked, but her big, bright eyes darted everywhere, looking for the animals. Caroline felt her sister’s leaping pulse in the hollow between her thumb and pointer finger.
It was a Saturday, and the entrance line wound around the block.
Hot sun beat down on them — she had rushed them out without even their bonnets — as they huddled together listening to the murmur of conversations all around, families, mainly, with rough Bowery boys hanging on the rail and a few lone men, one of whom — a fellow with a meaty nose and a stain on his lapel — eyed them grimly.
A sheen of sweat shone over Helen’s freckles, and Caroline itched in her indoor gown, too warm for open sunlight. They had no parasol, but at least she had thought to bring the exhibition catalog. She kept it tucked under an arm until she could no longer ignore the feeling that everyone, not just Mr. Meaty Nose, was staring at them, at which point she opened the program and flipped through, pointing things out to Helen, the secret things they would see and hear and touch and smell.
They were collared just inside the door. Collared was a word Caroline especially liked and had always wanted to use in a sentence. But she was too nervous, just now, to enjoy it.
“I know you.” The man laughed and waved them over to his seat on a tall stool by the ticket counter, where he waited for the early-morning receipts to be bagged. It was Daddy’s partner‑in‑crime, as Mother called him, Mr. Lyman.
Stepping closer to the counter, Caroline held out their coins in a trembling hand.
“I don’t want your money.” Mr. Lyman leaned forward and hooked a thumb toward the mysterious expanse behind them. “He might. But I don’t.”
Caroline laughed because he seemed to require it of her. Helen laughed because Caroline did.
“No chaperone today?” Mr. Lyman asked, eyeing Mr. Meaty Nose in line behind them.
“Mother was . . . sleeping,” Caroline explained in a small voice.
A woman behind them began to complain that they were taking too long. They were holding up the line, and what were two little girls doing out alone like that, anyway? The two rough boys who had been hanging on the rail whistled through their fingers. Mr. Lyman was forced to walk round and take both girls by the hand. He excused himself to the man in the ticket booth, then led them upstairs to Daddy’s office.
As Mr. Lyman pulled them through the crowds, Caroline’s heart beat so hard she thought it would deafen her. Her limbs felt quavery, and she couldn’t see Helen on the other side. Seeing Helen, meeting her steady gaze, always gave Caroline nerve, but her nerves were failing now. She was done for.
Daddy glanced up from his ledger.
“Mother was asleep.” It was all Caroline could think to say. She stared at her shoes, pigeon-toed.
Helen did likewise, in house slippers.
“I’m sorry,” Caroline offered. They had never in their lives gone out unattended or stolen milk money or any money, much less employed deceit.
She knew he was cross, because he said nothing. Not one word. He kept scribbling in his ledger.
They were wasting his valuable time.
He should be counting receipts.
She felt a moment’s terror and trembling, but he didn’t shout or scold or cuff them. He stood up slowly, walked round the desk, and knelt — Daddy was very tall — to lift her chin. He asked, “What took you so long?”
“Levi!” he called, and Mr. Lyman, who had been hovering outside the office door, returned with peaked eyebrows. Daddy nudged them forward, a hand on the back of each girl’s neck. “As you know, these are chips off the old block. I’ll take them up to see the mermaid after I’m through here. Please escort them to the sitting room to wait.”
Even Helen knew not to speak at so sacred a time. Caroline felt wise and very old, though Mr. Lyman again took her hand like a baby’s — and Helen’s in the other. “Brace yourselves, girls,” he said, laughing over a shoulder.
Daddy winked before they walked away, brushing at a splatter of ink from his pen. “We reward initiative here.”
The sofa they waited on had supported numberless backsides. The quiet room had high ceilings and exotic landscapes, fruits, and birds painted on the walls. They could see the main entrance hall through a wide threshold, and the lumbering flow of visitors bumping and jostling. Caroline thought she saw one of the rough boys go by, but in that crush of humanity there were no faces, only hats and bonnets, sharp elbows and shoulders.
At first, the girls observed propriety, their backs straight, hands folded (though gloveless and exposed) on their knees, ankles tucked under long skirts. It was hard for Caroline to judge the passing of time with no grandfather clock to help. Moments became hours. She missed Mother. She even missed Frances.
Helen shifted onto her side and pulled her legs up in unladylike fashion. She laid her head in Caroline’s lap to nap, forcing Caroline to smooth her sister’s dress down and down for modesty’s sake. Helen was not heavy, but Caroline’s legs grew numb and tingling
under her weight. Defiance plagued her again. This was what Mother would do. Sit by and sigh and close her eyes, watching the magic lantern show inside her skull.
Helen whimpered in a dream.
What if they went up on their own?
But the memory of Daddy’s face as he knelt to lift her chin, his pride in their adventurousness, gave Caroline pause. His pride would become irritation or anger if they suffered a mishap or disappointed him in one of countless ways. Caroline couldn’t let him down after pleasing him so well without quite understanding how.
Just as she, too, was beginning to doze off, Madge appeared above her like a harpy from a nightmare, jostling them awake.
“Your mother is worried sick!”
Both girls sat up and stretched. Everything hurt.
“Your poor mother,” Madge droned on.
“He forgot us, didn’t he?” Caroline asked with as much dignity as she could muster.
“He was detained. He sent for me. Come now; look sharp. I have babies of my own to tend.”
Caroline wanted to say I am not a baby, but that would be sass. Instead, in a voice even more proud and disinterested than before, she repeated, “We only wanted to see the mermaid.”
“Yes, I know. It’s on the way out.” Madge sniffed and seized and released Helen’s wrist. “Let’s go.”
They hurried through the halls after Madge. In her drab brown coat, she was like a bird in an autumn bush, easy to lose sight of among such color and pattern. Their legs were short, and it took only a few moments to lose sight of Madge altogether. Everything was loud and bright, and Caroline had to stop and let it go by, let everything go by.
Helen stopped short, clasping her leader’s hand so hard it hurt. Mirror tears streamed down her round face. Caroline wrested her hand free, and Helen sank to the floor. She seized Caroline’s leg as if it were the trunk of a tree. “Stop, Helen! Let me think!”
“Are you lost, young lady?”
Another voice, leaning close with peppermint breath: “What’s your name, dear?”
I am Barnum, Caroline Cordelia Barnum! This is my very own museum, all five floors. Every seashell and tiger belongs to me, and so does the one-and-only club that killed Captain Cook. . . .
But her mouth only moved like a fish’s.
A small crowd had gathered, as if she and Helen were human oddities in their own right, and the ruckus brought Madge back to them. Huffing, she caught them up by the sleeves and steered them past the gawkers, out of one hall and into the next, and from there it went by in a sickening blur, the Tattooed Man and the Highland Mammoth Boys. A loud voice narrated the manner in which Mr. Nellis, the Armless Wonder, used his feet to load and fire a pistol and shoot with a bow and arrow (or, “in the season of Cupid,” called the barker, cut paper “valentines”) . . .
Madge steered them here and there, not gently, until they came to a small viewing room with a sign reading The Fejee Mermaid. Caroline wanted to pause reverently and compose herself, but Madge and Helen had no such impulse, and no right to see the mermaid first, so Caroline swiped at a stray tear, and in they went.
The creature was in a tall glass dome on a stand. She would never again comb her curls or skim the waves or shoot like a bullet through the depths.
“There is your mermaid,” Madge said in her sour, scolding voice; there was also a hint of satisfaction, which frightened Caroline — that a grown person in charge of their wellbeing should despise them so. What had they done to deserve it?
The creature looked starved and shrunken, like blackened earwax, carved into the shape of a fish below and a monkey, or a tiny old woman with shriveled breasts, above.
“You may as well know sooner than late.” Madge leveled her gaze on Caroline, someone else’s spoiled child. “There are no mermaids.”
Helen had stepped very close, her nose almost to the glass, or what she could reach of it. Caroline kept her distance, and one eye on the ugly beast, trying to think what it reminded her of.
Mother. It reminded her of their mother, curled toward the wall, frozen in her pose like a cursed thing from a fairy story.
Caroline felt no fear, no pity for the ladyfish, only amazement, as her father intended. This was, after all, Daddy’s mermaid. A rush of good cheer overcame her. Pugnacious optimism was a trait she and her father shared. Caroline took Helen by the hand before they could be bullied forward again, and cupped her other to her sister’s seashell ear. “Let’s go home,” she said with a disdainful glance at Madge. “There are no real mermaids here.”
We Are All His Creatures
By: Deborah Noyes
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: March 10th, 2020
Five winners will receive a copy of We Are All His Creatures (Deborah Noyes) ~ (US/Canada Only)
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What an interesting set of historical fiction stories! The cover really sets the reader up for intrigue and excitement.
I like the colors and design of the book cover. This sounds like a very interesting look into the Barnum family and circus.