Review: Little People by Jane Sullivan

Jane Sullivan draws on the true-life events of 1870, when a troupe of little people toured Australia. General Tom Thumb really did fall into the Yarra River and was rescued, and from this starting point, Sullivan creates a fictionalised account of their adventures.

Strange beliefs, secrets and mystery surround Mary Ann’s unborn baby. Who should she trust, and what will the truth mean for her, the child and the theatre folk on whom she now depends? Chapters from the point of view of the web-fingered governess, Mary Ann, who saved the General instead of drowning herself as planned, are interspersed with chapters narrated by the other players in the story. The General’s rival, George Nutt and Nutt’s brother Rodia; the General’s tiny wife, Lavinia and her sister Minnie.

Sullivan draws her cast with just the right touch of the outre and the humane. Her exploration of the little people reflects the time in which they lived and were treated as curiosities, celebrated but not always considered quite ‘real’. Web-fingered Mary Ann, a pregnant woman without a husband, is equally suspended between two views. Her determination not to be ‘tractable’ leads her to both trouble and to find her courage.

Little People draws on the arcane and bizarre, the same fodder for curiosities that fuelled sideshows, PT Barnums’ wonders and the science/fantast hybrid fiction of Jules Verne, HG Wells, Mary Shelley and Robert Louis Stephensen. The book is also full of humanity and warmth, so that when all the arcane beliefs are taken away, the reader is left with a story of love and courage.

Buy Little People by Jane Sullivan.
Buy the e-book of LIttle People.

GaryView: Beauty and the Beast Pilot Episode

Gary and LissaGary: That wasn’t very plausible.

Lissa: A cat-faced man forming a strange and intense friendship with a plucky gal with a regular job?

Gary: For a start.

Lissa: Says the vampire who is friends with a librarian.

Gary: … I suppose when you put it like that…

Lissa: (laughs) Only you never read me poetry.

Gary: No. Not likely to either. My high school English teacher made me promise to never read aloud again.

Lissa: Oh, that’s mean.

Gary: Yeah. But. You know. Warranted. Not everybody has a voice like a cat-faced man from New York.

Lissa: (a little wistfully) He does have a very nice voice.

Gary: Are you telling me you liked all that schmaltz?

Lissa: … It’s not that schmaltzy.

Gary:  Say that again without sounding defensive.

Lissa: Okay, so it’s a bit schmaltzy. And also a bit creepy, having a secret boyfriend who beats people up.

Gary: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that bit. That is creepy.

Lissa: But I love this show anyway. I watched it when I was a little girl. I used to dress our cat in a little teatowel cape and made him listen to classical music with me. I made my sister Belinda find all the poems and read them to me and Kate at bedtime. We didn’t know what half of it meant, but we loved the way the words sounded. A few years after Belinda died I found the series on videotape and watched it all again. I went and found all the poems and music from it. It reminded me so much of her…

Gary: (a little panicky)  I’m sorry. Don’t cry. I’m sorry I said it was schmaltzy.

Lissa: (taking big breaths) Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t mean to get all… sometimes it gets me like this. I’m okay. I just… I miss her so much, sometimes. I miss the things we did together, even the fights we had. Belinda should have been a great writer, and instead she… she… (gulps down a breath) I even miss talking about her. We stopped doing that at home. It made the sadness unbearable.

Gary: I’m sorry you’re sad.

Lissa: Me too. So this show, and the poetry in it, it’s like, it’s something Belinda gave me.

Gary: Um. The poetry is… very pretty. And the music’s nice.

Lissa: (sniffing) Yes, they are. This show is one of the reasons I became a librarian, in the end. I spent so much time in libraries finding all the texts, I liked being in there much more than I liked being at home. I always felt safe in libraries. And close to Belinda.

Gary: Libraries are great. I usually hang around the non-fiction section myself, or look for the SF.

Lissa: (calmer) You should try some of the great poets one day.

Gary: Maybe. I’ve certainly got the time to read them nowadays.

Lissa: So. Right. Seeing as it’s schmaltzy and a little creepy, I take it you’re not keen on watching any more.

Gary: I don’t mind creepy. But is this whole series a split between poetry and violence?

Lissa: … You know, I rather think it is. Though there is some great world-building later on, about the society that lives in the tunnels below New York. You might enjoy watching some of the things they do to jury-rig technology.

Gary: Oh, that would be interesting.

Lissa: It’s funny how Vincent lives below the city, but he likes to climb up the buildings to look at it from above too.

Gary: If I was forced to live in a cave, I’d probably like to go roofless for a bit too.

Lissa: I guess so. Hey, do you ever climb onto rooftops to look at the city at night?

Gary: Not really. Though I did climb to the roof of Council House Two a few times to look at the yellow turbines up there, and how the shutters work. You know the place, with all that climate friendly engineering?

Lissa: (laughs) That’s your kind of poetry, huh?

Gary: I guess so. I made some sketches and tried to do some reading on the engineering principles, but I had trouble with some of it. (shrugs off the limits of his undead brain)

Lissa: Have you ever thought of going up to just… look at the view?

Gary: No. Is it a nice view?

Lissa: Probably. It looks pretty from my apartment block in South Melbourne. The night sky and the city lights are very forgiving to the Yarra River. I bet it would be even nicer from higher up.

Gary: Would you like to see it? I can take you up if you want.

Lissa: I’d like that.

Gary: I’ll… even let you read me some of that poetry you like, if you want.

Lissa: Are you sure?

Gary: I like your voice. That would be okay. You can explain all the things I don’t understand, too.

Lissa: I’d be delighted to, Gary.

Gary: Good. Maybe… if you miss talking about Belinda. You could tell me about her too. If you want.

(Lissa stares at Gary a moment, then lunges at him, hugging him fiercely. Gary, not sure what he’s done right this time, pats her on the back.)

*For newcomers, the GaryView is a review of books/films/TV/entertainment carried out as a conversation between Lissa Wilson (librarian) and Gary Hooper (vampire) , characters from my book ‘The Opposite of Life’. Visit my website for more information.

Words are like oxygen