Orphans of the Carnival

Written by Carol Birch
Review by Jo Ann Butler

Julia Pastrana, born in 1834, is painfully aware that she is unique. As a little girl in a Sinaloa orphanage, she imagines that Mexico’s mountains are full of women like her, with hairy faces and protruding teeth. However, Julia hears of other human freaks in New Orleans—perhaps one is like her! Besides, she is assured that their differences earn them good money. So, in 1854 Julia veils her shocking face and buys a train ticket to New Orleans.

Contemporary doctors declare that Julia is the result of a human mating with an orangutan or a bear, or perhaps she is a species unto herself. Her hypertrichosis is actually a mutation, but the cause matters little. The jarring combination of Julia’s angelic voice and graceful dancing, paired with her bestial appearance, makes her a sensation wherever she appears. Then Theodore Lent, a charming opportunist, sees Julia on stage in New York. He promises her that she would become rich and famous performing in Europe. Lent lures her away from her manager, and off they go.

Carol Birch’s Orphans of the Carnival is an extraordinarily sensitive fictionalization of Julia Pastrana’s life. The poor woman was simultaneously lauded and reviled, and Ms. Birch does a terrific job of portraying the young woman’s ambivalence and inserting readers into Julia’s double life. What of Theo Lent? Does he love Julia, or is it a marriage of convenience with Lent as a well-compensated manager for life? I highly recommend that you read Orphans of the Carnival and find out for yourself.