________________ CM . . . . Volume VII Number 4 . . . . October 20, 2000

cover Earthly Astonishments.

Marthe Jocelyn.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2000.
179 pp., cloth, $19.99.
ISBN 0-88776-495-9.

Subject Headings:
New York (NY)-Fiction.

Grades 4 - 9 / Ages 9 - 14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4


"Your feet are four inches long! Four inches! I am delighted, my dear, simply delighted!"


Josephine's shame suddenly floated away, and she felt a burst of hope inside. She had something that Mr. Walters wanted, and Mr. Walters was a rich man. She was good at arithmetic.


"I am prepared to offer you room and board, and new dresses, plus ten dollars a year, in exchange for your sevices in our museum," stated Mr. Walters, his voice steady and warm as if promising the moon.


"Mr. Walters." It came out in a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Mr. Walters. When I saw those pictures out front, I was ready to skedaddle straight to the stitching factory. Then I remembered you bought me my supper, and Charley said it wasn't so bad ... But I'll need more than what you're saying." Josephine didn't know where her courage was coming from.

Most people would like to be "different," by which they mean unusual, outstanding, exciting in some way, but not, however, physically different, except perhaps again in some outstanding or exciting way. Josephine was tiny - not just short, but minute, 28.5 inches tall at the age of twelve, with feet, as noted above, that measured only four inches in length. When she was nine, her father decided to make some money by showing her off as a freak. This happening brought Josephine to the attention of the head mistress of a girls' school in New York who offered her father money - in effect bought her - to have her as a servant/slave in her school. Josephine is a spunky character, however. She stood life in the school for five years, doing her beautiful sewing and learning more than many of the pupils, but, when an abusive new cook was hired, Josephine took the money that she thought was due her and ran away. An impresario who ran what was essentially a freak show - albino boy, lizard man, bearded lady - hired Josephine on Josephine's terms (I said she had spunk!) to be one of his exhibits.
    Josephine, or Little Jo-Jo as she was billed, was quite happy in her new situation, being stared at by day but living with the albino boy and his mother as part of their family the rest of the time. One day, however, she was spotted by a couple of pupils from her old school, and, at this point, the story rather comes apart. The behaviour of the head mistress of the school owes a great deal more to Roald Dahl's nastier female prototypes than to that of any normal human being. In a novel with other fantastic components, such as Dahl's, antics such as trying to kidnap back a servant would perhaps be acceptable, given the general atmosphere of suspension of disbelief, but this story has been basically an adventure story up to this point, albeit one with an unusual protagonist. If you can accept Miss MacLauren's behaviour as plausible, then you may also be able to accept the excitement of the story line; if you can't, well it is all just a bit much. The brother/sister relationship that Jo and the albino boy Charley establish also does not quite ring true.
    What does come through loud and clear is the family atmosphere of the small travelling show where each helps the other, and even the big boss, though exploitive, is paternalistically fond of his charges and helps them when he can without damaging his own interests. In the author's note at the end of the book, Jocelyn says that, although P.R. Barnum, Tom Thumb and Lavinia Bump Warren are the only historical persons in the book, there were "dozens of real 'dime museums' in the New York area during the second half of the nineteenth century" which "displayed all these 'curiosities' mentioned in the story." This book is a snapshot of a strange piece of history and interesting for that as well as for its story.

Recommended with reservations.

Mary Thomas, who works in two elementary school libraries in Winnipeg, MB, is not terribly fond of Roald Dahl's books.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364