American history is full of grand moments, terrible moments and what were they thinking moments. The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice is about one of those strange moments in history made even more bizarre by of the actions of carnival huckster who turned out to be a bigamist and a criminal. From the book jacket:
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island unearths the forgotten story of the Igorrotes, a group of “headhunting, dog-eating savages” from the Philippines, who were transported to New York in 1905 by the charming, opportunistic doctor-turned-showman Truman K. Hunt. They appeared as “human exhibits” alongside the freaks and curiosities at Coney Island’s Luna Park. … By the end of that first summer season at Coney, the sideshow scheme had made Hunt a rich man. But he was also a man who liked to live large, and his fortune was dwarfed only by his ability to spend it. Soon he would be on the run with the tribe in tow, pursued by ex-wives, creditors, and the tireless agents of American justice.
That is a big book summary, and in almost all respects The Lost Tribe of Coney Island delivers with a story that is funny, frustrating and curious in equal measures.
I loved the way that Prentice slowly revealed the depth of Truman Hunt’s deceptions and dishonesty. As the story begins, he appears to be a savvy businessman, although looking back it’s fair to question the motives of someone who would bring humans across the ocean for display at a carnival. As the story progresses, it becomes clear Hunt is not the person he claims to be — his actions make him among the scummier people I’ve ever encountered in a nonfiction book.
For their part, the Igorrotes are equally interesting, with their own motivations for participating in the charade. Prentice gives a lot of space to their story, which I enjoyed. It would be easy to think of them as simple natives, duped by a white man who wasn’t honest with them. And while much of that is true — Hunt is a liar and a cheat — the Igorrotes would have gained a lot financially from their display at Coney Island if he’d actually followed the contract.
The one respect where I struggled with the book is an issue I’ve mentioned before, the level of citations needed in narrative nonfiction. In the introduction, Prentice notes that this story is full of frustrating gaps in the historical record, and the records that are available are inaccurate or open to question. She also writes that she describes the “thoughts, feelings and motivations” of some characters based on “close consideration” of her research.
While I understand that writing an engaging narrative history will require some leaps, I felt like moments in this book went too far in areas where it wasn’t necessary. For example, this is part of a brief scene that describes Hunt getting on a train in the morning:
The showman stepped on the train to Coney and immediately felt his mood improve as he caught the eye of a pretty stranger sitting near the door. He tipped his had in her direction and flashed her a broad smile. He couldn’t resist. It was Friday and he felt his equilibrium restoring. … He was distracted momentarily as the pretty woman got up to leave the train. Truman smiled, his blue eyes following her as she walked over to the door. She smiled back and was gone.”
There’s no citation for this story in the notes, and while it seems to be in character with what the rest of the book reveals about Hunt and his treatment of women, I found it jarring — why even include a scene like this that seems almost impossible to properly attribute?
These moments were frustrating to read in a book like this one because I don’t think the story needs those details. I don’t like when I get pulled out a story wondering what is true and what’s not when it doesn’t seem important. Truman Hunt and his treatment of the Igorrotes in his care is a strange, maddening, truly interesting story that could stand on it’s own based on the documentation available — I wish the book would have let that happen.
Other Tour Stops: Booksie’s Blog (Oct. 13) | Kahakai Kitchen (Oct. 14 | Time 2 Read (Oct. 14) | Patricia’s Wisdom (Oct. 15) | 50 Book Project (Oct. 16) | Padre Steve (Oct. 17) | girlichef (Oct. 20) | Wordsmithonia (Oct. 20) | Svetlana’s Reads and Views (Oct. 21) | She Treads Softly (Oct. 22) | Diary of a Stay at Home Mom (Oct. 23) | Dwell in Possibility (Oct. 24) | BookNAround (Oct. 27) | Mental Foodie (Oct. 27) | Lisa’s Yarns (Oct. 28) | A Bookish Affair (Oct. 29) |