In 1842 Phineas T. Barnum is a young man, freshly arrived in New York and still unknown to the world. With uncanny confidence and impeccable timing, he transforms a dusty natural history museum into a great ark for public imagination. Barnum's museum, with its human wonders and extraordinary live animal menagerie, rises to become not only the nation's most popular attraction, but also a catalyst that ushers America out of a culture of glassed-in exhibits and into the modern age of entertainment.
In this kaleidoscopic setting, the stories of two compelling characters are brought to life. Emile Guillaudeu is the museum's grumpy taxidermist, who is horrified by the chaotic change Barnum brings to his beloved institution. Ana Swift is a professional giantess plagued by chronic pain and jaded by a world of gawkers. The differences between these two are many: one is isolated and spends his working hours making dead things look alive, while the other has people pushing against her, and reacting to her, every day. But they both move toward change, one against his will, propelled by a paradigm shift happening whether he likes it or not, and the other because she is struggling to survive. In many shapes and forms, metamorphosis is at the core of Among the Wonderful. Its story weaves a world where upper Manhattan is still untrammeled wilderness, the Five Points is at the height of its bloody glory, and within the walls of Barnum's museum, ancient tribal feuds play out in the midst of an unlikely community of marvels.
Also available as an ebook: 978-1-58642-187-8.
"The great strength of this book is Carlson's evocation of time and place." -- O, The Oprah Magazine
"Carlson ably exploits this historical milieu, describing the milling crowds in the exhibition halls; the malodorous, dangerous alleyways of the slum called Five Points; the swampy, still-wild edges of Upper Manhattan. . . . [she] writes sensitively, often beautifully, of the desire to be free of the gaze of others, of the misery of serving as a mirror in which others may see themselves." -- New York Times Book Review
Carlson's "portrait of mid-19th-century New York is as finely hatched as any . . . But what draws you in are her two narrators, each fumbling their way toward the rest of humanity, toward what is wonderful about being part of the world." --East Bay Express
"Carlson (sets) her story before the dawn of the modern circus, in the little-explored days when Barnum was a museum man . . . And (Ana) Swift is a most charming narrator with which to explore this world. . . . The great mystery of Wonderful is that Barnum, the flashiest character in the 1800s, doesn't keep center stage. Instead, all our focus, and the entirety of our affection, is directed to the noticeably slouching giantess at the fringes of the action. That's some kind of show-business magic at work." -- The Stranger (Seattle)
"A strange, rollicking often poignant tale." -- San Jose Mercury News