What are we to make of the proliferation of true-life hoax books for children filling our library and bookstore shelves this year? Whether it’s the clever ruse of The Fairy Ring scandal or the sheer number of middle grade chapter books featuring jackalopes (I’ve seen five so far) there’s something to be said about the natural human desire to believe in the impossible even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Into this mix drops yet another great American hoax, all but forgotten today. Author Jim Murphy has covered serious subjects like WWI Truce, An American Plague, and The Great Fire. Now he turns his attention to the seemingly lighter fare of the Giant of Cardiff, showing all of us that even in the midst of what seemed like a harmless hoax, real damage to real people erupted when folks hoped for the impossible.
Nobody saw it coming. One minute some workmen were digging a rudimentary pit for a well and the next they’d unearthed a foot. And not just any foot, mind you. A giant foot. Next thing you know scientific experts were labeling the discovery of a giant stone man to be the petrified remains of a real giant and folks were flocking from miles around to catch a glimpse. Soon investors were getting involved and accusations of a gigantic hoax were leveled at those involved. The truth? They were right. Dreamed up by the mildly brilliant schemer George Hull, Murphy tracks the rise and inevitable fall of a giant that typified an America moving into the 20the century, trying to find its way.
As Mr. Murphy tells us in his extended note “A Word About My Research”, the impetus for this book came from none other than Bernie Madoff himself. Initially Jim thought it might make sense to write a bit of children’s nonfiction on Bernie, before deciding that there was a very great likelihood that it would “lack historical perspective and be more of a glorified magazine piece” to say nothing for how poorly it would date. Then he thought about doing something on Charles Ponzi but there was one huge problem with focusing on either Madoff or Ponzi since, “they were/are dull little men”. In this light the Cardiff Giant is positively sparkling with energy and amusement, though Murphy never lets us forget that in the midst of the hoax “at the heart of each episode, whether done for profit or laughs, was deception.”. A man killed himself in the wake of the Giant reveal and there is only a short drop from a large scale prank of this sort to a more contemporary monetary bilking of an American public. Even in his “Other Famous Hoaxes” section, we enjoy reading the various historical pranks/cons on display but can’t help but notice that for all that we think ourselves to be so smart and savvy today, the Archaeoraptor liaoningensis of 1999 and the Shinichi Fujmura “finds” of 2000 show that we’re still inclined to see what we want to see. All it takes is a little push.
Even as he connects the tale to the present, Murphy knows how to tie the Giant’s story to its times. Every good phenomenon ends up being a case of being in the right place at the right time. In this particular example, the Giant came to prominence in the midst of two major historical shifts. On the one hand you had a post-Civil War America that was, in Mr. Murphy’s words, desperate for “something positive and inspiring to think about”. Fights over the fifteenth amendment were springing up left and right and newspapers in particular were desperate to think about something else for a change. Then, on the other hand, you had the rise of the Industrial Revolution with small towns feeling inadequate, desperate to connect to something bigger (literally, in this case) to themselves. Mr. Murphy has a kind of gift for looking at the big (there’s that word again) picture, letting kid readers know that no event, no matter how weird, exists in a vacuum. I can only hope that history teachers teach this to their kids, and encourage them to look at our own current phenomenons, placing them in contemporary context too.
Murphy takes care to begin his tale without the benefit of any preface or opening. Certainly there’s a Cast of Characters that, if read carefully, might reveal where this story might go (and for the record, I LOVED that he put that list at the start of the book rather than the end) but once you start reading all assumptions instantly fly out the window. Mr. Murphy puts you there on the spot as events play out. Everything from a one-armed worker’s hangover to the blaze of autumnal leaves makes it into the introductory scene. The result is an immediate sense of wonder akin to what the hired workers would have felt. Any kind of a preface would have defeated the immediate sense of mystery. Maybe Murphy figured that the best way to tell about a hoax was to hoax the reader as well so that by the time you read the words “The ugly truth was that Stub Newell was a bold-faced liar” you’re as shocked as any curiosity seeker at the time would have been.
I recently visited with my sister in Beverly Hills and as we walked through the streets of Hollywood passing everything from a Guinness Book of World Records museum to a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not I came to the not wholly unexpected conclusion that there is very little difference between the American appetite for the spectacular today versus the American appetite for the spectacular a hundred or more years ago. Jim Murphy knows this. It’s interesting to pair his book alongside Candace Fleming’s The Great and Only Barnum as two distinct and different looks (or are they the same?) of late 19th-century humbuggery at its finest. The Giant may now be just another roadside attraction, but Murphy’s book is the kind of text that we can only hope will stand the test of time.
On shelves October 1st.
Source: Galley received from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure
- The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming
- Tom Thumb: The Remarkable Story of a Man in Miniature by George Sullivan
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
Other Reviews: Richie’s Picks