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.”
Praise For We Are All His Creatures: Tales of P. T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman…
—Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (starred review)
The author uses historical facts combined with her own imagination to show readers that while Barnum did make some of his exhibits rich and famous, deep down he was a shyster who preyed on a gullible population in the name of "entertainment."...with real photos and a historical facts included, this book may make a nice addition to larger public library collections.
—School Library Connection
Proceeding chronologically from 1842 to Barnum’s death in 1891, this collection of 11 intertwined stories from Noyes (Tooth & Claw) imagines the inner lives of real people from the Barnum family and business, with the ambitious, exploitative P.T. Barnum serving as a decentered fulcrum...these stories vividly engage with their period images (“her knuckles... were the color of new cream”), providing a picture of what life with Barnum might have been like: “We are all his creatures.”
—Publishers Weekly Online
An entertaining, absorbing look at the prominent figures in Barnum’s life that will appeal to his fans and history buffs in general. Recommended.
—School Library Journal
Candlewick, 9780763659813, 288pp.
Publication Date: March 10, 2020
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. This is a book of linked short stories, and while some characters are in several stories, others appear in only one. Are there any characters you would like to know more about? Which ones? What do you think might have happened to them?
2. P. T. Barnum was a showman who featured Little People, giants, bearded ladies, and others, first in his museum and later in his circus. How do you feel about this? Was he exploiting these people or helping them?
3. The title of this book is We Are All His Creatures. What is meant by this?
4. In the first tale, we learn that despite living in the building that housed the museum, P. T. Barnum’s own daughters had never visited it. Why did Barnum keep them out? And how did he react when they snuck in?
5. Barnum was repeatedly cruel to his first wife, Charity. Why do you think this was? Why was Caroline, the oldest daughter, also mean to her?
6. While Charity and Caroline sailed back to the United States from Europe, Charity considered going to her mother’s house to have her fourth baby because she knew her husband wouldn’t be there when she needed him. “Why should she wait there—indefinitely, interminably—for a husband who never arrived and never quite disappeared?” (page 60). What is meant by the last phrase, “and never quite disappeared”?
7. Opera singer Jenny Lind was a sensation in America before she even arrived, thanks to the hype that Barnum created. How do you think she felt about all the attention and commotion? Is there anyone today who causes as much excitement?
8. Helen purportedly saw the ghost of her sister Frances at Iranistan, the Barnums’ gaudy mansion in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Do you believe she saw a ghost? If not, what might have been happening?
9. We learn conflicting things about the character of Caroline, the oldest sister. She was cruel to her mother, but Helen counted on her to be the politician in the family and to help Helen when she needed it. Are most people all good or all bad, or are they a mixture?
10. In the chapter about Tom Thumb’s wedding, the author talks about Abraham Lincoln’s character, saying, “He never seemed to judge or talk down to another human soul, though many despised him for it” (page 147). Why would anyone despise someone for being kind and nonjudgmental?
11. In Barnum’s time it was perfectly acceptable to put people with differences on display so others could stare at them. How have societal attitudes changed since then?
12. Barnum’s youngest daughter, Pauline, didn’t see the difference between how Mr. Mumler, the spirit photographer, and her own father fooled people. Do you think there is a difference? Why?
13. Nancy, Barnum’s second wife, identified with the huge elephant named Jumbo. What did they have in common?
14. We see P. T. Barnum obliquely in these tales, through the eyes and observations of others. How would you describe his personality based on these stories?
15. What do you find most fascinating about P. T. Barnum? What would you like to know more about?