We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman
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."
My favorite stories in this novel are the ones about his daughters. Though the movie paints Barnum as quite the family man, Noyes’ stories suggest it wasn’t always easy to be his children. In fact, instead of a childhood steeped in magic and mystery, in Noyes’ version, the girls are kept away from the museum and left with their despondent mother. The only way they get to see the museum is by sneaking into it. Later on, the eldest travels with the show, but even then, she’s just a decoy for Jenny Lind.
I also wasn’t aware that Barnum’s third daughter died at such a young age, or that he had fires at both his home and museum. He had even bigger troubles than I originally realized and it’s amazing that he found the strength to keep rebuilding. In this vein, I love how Noyes painted the relationship between the third daughter and General Tom Thumb, and how when she passed due to illness, we feel the loss through Thumb.
Overall, WE ARE ALL HIS CREATURES gives us snapshots of what P.T. Barnum’s life and show could have looked like. We get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it would be like to run off and join the circus and what it would be like to work with such a visionary and supreme entertainer. The book echoes many similar themes to the movie, such as fitting in when you feel and appear to be different, attempting to make a mark on the world, resilience, the public’s attraction to the unusual, and losing oneself in the pursuit of success. Beyond that, the book’s cover is beautiful and vibrant, just like Barnum himself.