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The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno


The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

Phineas Taylor Barnum revolutionized our culture with his bold new concept: a museum that featured constantly changing displays of unique acts and oddities. For the “oddities”, it seemed a step up from a carnival freak show. But for Bartholomew Fortuno, the world’s thinnest man, the life Barnum offered him gave him hope. Rather than viewing himself as a freak, Fortuno saw his distinctiveness as a gift. He believed that he enlightened and educated people through his performances: “Under Barnum’s care, we were celebrated as Curiosities and given proper respect for our gifts, but without his showmanship the public would see us simply as freaks.”

Now, in 1865, Fortuno has begun a transformation. For years, things have gone along as he expected they would. He fits in well with his “colleagues.” His shows still draw good crowds and enough gasps from his audience to let him know they’re paying attention. In short, his life at the Museum is comfortable. But maybe it has become too comfortable, for the seed of dissatisfaction is starting to grow.

He looks around himself and sees things in a different light. For years, Fortuno has considered Matina, the fat lady, his closest friend. A strange couple, to be sure, but their relationship is defined more by friendship than physical attraction. It may have blossomed into more but for the circumstances of that summer of 1865. Fortuno hears that Barnum has acquired a new act, a gorgeous creature named Iell Adams. The nature of her act remains a mystery for a time, and Fortuno becomes obsessed with getting a glimpse of her. Once he does, he can’t seem to stay away.

Shortly after Iell’s arrival, Barnum sends Fortuno on a special mission. He brims with excitement, for not only does it put him in Barnum’s good graces, it involves a favor for the beautiful Iell. He soon discovers that these errands also relates to her dark secret. At least one of them, for she has many. As Fortuno’s interest in Iell grows, so does Matina’s jealousy. Her old friend has been making a colossal fool of himself, and everyone can see it plainly except him. Matina has noticed Fortuno’s odd behavior and his strange absences. He’s taking chances that could compromise his future.

It doesn’t take long before Fortuno suffers from an onslaught of disturbing dreams, seemingly caused by the new performer. He finds himself drifting off when people are talking to him. Flashes from his past have begun to assail him frequently, and they make him highly uncomfortable. Doubts creep in, and he wonders for the first time how he became so thin. Is it in his genes? Did he get that way by design? Was it some kind of reaction to a tragedy? Or maybe it was his mother’s fault. All along, Fortuno believed he was a serious performer, but now he’s having second thoughts. Does he have a gift, or is he a fake? His realization that he may be simply a Curiosity could be hard for him to swallow.

To add to the tension, there’s an arsonist on the loose. The fires have been easily controlled so far, but if they escalate, the entire troupe could be out of a home and a job. Is it someone from the inside, or an outsider with a distaste for Barnum’s show?

THE TRANSFORMATION OF BARTHOLOMEW FORTUNO is a fanciful book that lends insight into P. T. Barnum and his American Museum in the disguise of a love story. Filled with quirky yet lovable characters, it is a fun journey back to an interesting time in America’s history.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on January 23, 2011

The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno
by Ellen Bryson

  • Publication Date: June 7, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
  • ISBN-10: 0312577125
  • ISBN-13: 9780312577124