The Transformation of Bartholomew Fortuno

Written by Ellen Bryson
Review by Suzanne Sprague

In 1865, the complacent Bartholomew Fortuno, billed as the World’s Thinnest Man by P.T. Barnum, enjoys his life as one of Barnum’s Human Curiosities, housed and displayed in Barnum’s New York City American Museum. Bartholomew and his friends, also Curiosities, live in apartments in a resident wing in the comforting protection of the museum. Before Bartholomew’s awaking begins, he rarely ventures into the chaotic world outside of the museum’s gates. When a new Curiosity, Iell Adams, is added to Barnum’s collection, she ripples the status quo, forcing him out of his comfort zone when Barnum sends him across town on a mysterious errand on Iell’s behalf. Bartholomew develops an obsession with Iell and is gradually becomes more aware of life’s offerings outside of the museum.

Bryson portrays the physical anomalies of these characters tactfully, without grotesque or demeaning descriptors. The physical characteristics of the Curiosities, such as the fat lady, the giantess, Zippy, and also the Gaffs, while crucial to the setting, never overshadow the relationships between the characters nor the flow of the story. The authentic historical details woven deftly into the narrative along with fictionalized characters demonstrate the author’s depth of research and understanding of her topic. As we watch Bartholomew’s transformation as he discovers the origins of his “gift,” Bryson reminds us that everyone has the same basic needs, regardless of body design.

Entertaining and insightful, this novel is inspired by Isaac W. Sprague, Barnum’s Original Living Skeleton, and includes illustrations of news clippings, notices, and correspondence. While the fascinating lifestyle of the Curiosities may initially attract the reader’s attention, the well-crafted story about a man’s self-discovery will be the actual reward.