Orphans of the Carnival

Oddities of nature have always fascinated humans, and Julia Pastrana, the main character in Carol Birch's Orphans of the Carnival, is no exception. Born in the early 1800s in Mexico, with an excessive amount of body and facial hair and wide, pronounced lips, Pastrana was touted as the "bear woman." She appeared all over the United States and Europe in her own show; she sang and danced to the delight and horror of her audiences. Still, Pastrana had the same desires and wants as other women: love, companionship, a home and children. But she was a freak and hardly anyone could contemplate falling in love or making love with her. Until one man did.

Birch (Jamrach's Menagerie) has taken the true story of Pastrana and expertly fictionalized it. She has captured the desires and longings of a young woman who was trapped in a body that provided her with a steady income while repulsing many around her. Birch has also done a good job of depicting Theo Lent, Pastrana's manager and husband, who fought an inner battle that eventually drove him mad. Woven through this main thread is another, offbeat story of a woman who collects odd rubbish whose significance doesn't become apparent until the end. Orphans of the Carnival is a slow-moving, yet gripping dive into the complexity and meaning of humanity and human relationships, made all the more powerful by being based on true events. --Lee E. Cart, freelance writer and book reviewer

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