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.