The World’s Greatest Showman by J. Bryan III

The World’s Greatest Showman: The Life of P.T. Barnum by J. Bryan III.

I’m going with some of the urchins to see The Greatest Showman, the new movie musical starring Hugh Jackman as Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great huckster, advertiser, showman, lecturer, and promoter of nineteenth century America. So I had to pull out the Landmark history book about the life and times of Mr. Barnum so that I could check the movie against reality. I’m told that there’s not much reality in the movie.

If so, that’s probably a tribute to the real P.T. Barnum, who included about as much truth and reality in his shows and his advertisements and media campaigns as the average Hollywood movie mogul does in his, not very much. Everything in Barnum’s shows, first his New York museum, and then his circus, was colossal, unique, amazing, stupendous, prodigious, and/or fantastic—because Barnum said so. He was a liar and a humbug (one of his favorite descriptors), but the public knew it and ate it up. He made a fortune first for himself, but also for Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, for The Swedish Nightingale singer Jenny Lind, and for numerous other performers and partners who worked with and for him.

He also lost more than one personal fortune. Five different fires destroyed his various businesses and homes at different times, and he never did learn to adequately insure his holdings against disaster. Each time, according to the book, he was under-insured and had to start all over again building up his museum or circus or house to come back from the brink.

The World’s Greatest Showman portrays Barnum as a joker and a salesman, certainly not averse to exaggeration or downright lies as long as he could put on a good show and rope in a big audience. His views and actions in regard to racial issues and and slavery and justice were mixed, as befits the time in which he lived (1810-1891). But he was all-in-all a likable character, generous and a sharp businessman at the same time, a teetotaler and a “religious man”, according to Wikipedia, a dedicated member of the Universalist Church.


I’ve been to see the movie, and it was a great show, but not at all true to the life of P.T. Barnum. The movie took many liberties with the timeline and events of Barnum’s life, but that’s to be expected. Barnum would probably not have minded a bit or a even a lot of “humbug” in the interest of a good show. However, two elements of the movie plot would emphatically not have been to Mr. Barnum’s taste.

As I said, Barnum was quite dedicated to the temperance movement, didn’t drink alcohol at all, and encouraged others to abstain from alcoholic beverages, too. In the movie, he not only drinks, he’s rarely seen without a drink in his hand or sharing champagne or whiskey with friends, associates, and strangers. In fact, in the movie, alcohol almost becomes a symbol of the joie de vivre that Barnum tries to share with everyone he meets.

Also, Jenny Lind was Barnum’s friend and associate, and he did sponsor, finance, and arrange her American tour. But she would never have kissed him or tried to seduce him, on stage or off. Jenny Lind was, indeed, a devout Christian, and she gave most of her money, if not all of it, away to charities and churches. She and Barnum parted amicably before her contract with him had quite expired because she was tired of his commercialism and relentless promotions, even though she wanted to make as money as she could for her charitable endeavors.

Still, I recommend the movie and the Landmark book about his life. Each tells the story of a different man, one factual and the other fictional. I enjoyed both stories, and the music in the movie and Hugh Jackman’s performance as Barnum were worth the ticket price. (The movie reviewer at EW didn’t cut the movie any slack at all, and that wasn’t the only bad review I found in a cursory search. So you may want to ask yourself how much you can abide in the name of humbug from a fictionalized musical bio-pic.)

Quoting P.T. Barnum:

“Men, women, and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is, in my opinion, in a business established by the Creator of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

“Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much.”

“I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”

“The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”

10 Best Middle Grade Realistic Fiction Books I Read in 2017

Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce. Philippa Pearce wrote the fantasy classic, Tom’s Midnight Garden, but before that she wrote this her debut children’s book, a quiet mystery tale about boys messing about in boats on the river Say. It reminded me of my younger son and canoeing on Dickinson Bayou and times past.

Ash Road by Ivan Southall. I read this story about a bush fire in the Australian outback many years ago, and I remembered it as a great read. It was.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. Finally, this year I started this series about children and imagination and free play and sailing. It was fantastic, as you can see from this list. Three out of my ten favorite middle grade fiction books are all about the Swallows and the Amazons, rival “gangs” of children who race their sailboats and have mock battles in and about the rivers and lakes of the Lake District in northwest England.

Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome.

Secret Water by Arthur Ransome.

Almost Paradise by Corabel Shofner. Twelve-year-old Ruby Clyde Henderson’s life changes the day her mother’s boyfriend holds up a convenience store, and her mother, Babe (short for Barbara) is jailed for assisting with the crime. Now Babe’s twin sister, a nun who can’t stand Ruby Clyde or her mother, is Ruby Clyde’s only refuge.

The Family from One End Street: And Some of Their Adventures by Eve Garnett. This book won the Carnegie award for British children’s children’s fiction that same year that The Hobbit was published, a mistake to be sure, but nevertheless, it’s a good story about a large, poor-but-happy family in the 1930’s.

Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter. Aim is a prequel to Ms. Hostetter’s two books about Ann Fay Honeycutt, Blue and Comfort. Aim tells the story of Junior Bledsoe, a secondary, but beloved, character in those other two books.

Cinnamon Moon by Tess Hilmo. Twelve-year-old Ailis and her younger brother, Quinn, having lost their entire family in the Peshtigo fire of 1871, end up in Chicago, a city which is still recovering from its own fire.

So, if there were themes for the year they were: children in boats, adventure, and courage in the face of disaster, especially fiery disaster. Even The Family at One End Street had one chapter in which one of the children stows away on a boat or a ship (can’t remember which) and goes on an adventure.

10 Movies I Want to See in 2018

Goodbye, Christopher Robin. (October 13, 2017) “British biographical drama film about the lives of Winnie-the-Pooh creator A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin.”

Wonder. (November 17, 2017) Based on the book by R.J. Palacio.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (December 15, 2017) No, I haven’t seen it yet.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. (December 20, 2017) Based on the picture book by Chris Van Allsburg.

The Greatest Showman. (December 20, 2017) Starring Hugh Jackman as circus showman P.T. Barnum.

Darkest Hour. (December 22, 2017) If it’s about Winston Churchill, I want to see it.

A Wrinkle in Time. (March 9, 2018) Based on the book by Madeleine L’Engle.

Chappaquiddick. (April 6, 2018) (Has this movie already been released?) Anyway, it’s about Ted Kennedy and his infamous drunk driving accident that killed his young companion, Mary Jo Kopechne.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (May 25, 2018) Directed by Ron Howard. “Han Solo and Chewbacca’s adventures before joining the Rebellion, including their early encounters with Lando Calrissian.”

Christopher Robin (August 3, 2018) “An adult Christopher Robin, who is now focused on his new life, work, and family, suddenly meets his old friend Winnie the Pooh, who returns to his unforgotten childhood past to help him return to the Hundred Acre Wood and help find Pooh’s lost friends.”

Mary Poppins Returns (December 25, 2018) “In Depression-era London, a now-grown Jane and Michael Banks, along with Michael’s three children, are visited by the enigmatic Mary Poppins following a personal loss. Through her unique magical skills, and with the aid of her friend Jack, she helps the family rediscover the joy and wonder missing in their lives.” With Lin-Manuel Miranda! And Dick van Dyke!

Obviously, I like Star Wars and movies that are based on children’s books, with a little bit of history and movie bio-pic thrown into the mix.

10 Best Nonfiction Books I Read in 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. I think I am a “hillbilly” from the flat, desert lands of West Texas, if that makes any sense at all. There were so many cultural and familial traits and traditions that I recognized and identified with in Mr. Vance’s family narrative: the fierce independence, the tendency to eccentricity, the strength, the commitment to faith and family, and even some of the dysfunction.

The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher. The call for community and community-building in Mr. Dreher’s book is a topic dear to my own heart, and I am glad to see it treated with the serious consideration and wide-ranging discusion that it deserves.

Ten Fingers for God: The Life and Work of Dr. Paul Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson. Dr. Brand is an inspiration, and reading about his life was both encouraging and challenging.

Different: The Story of an Outside-The-Box Kid and the Mom Who Loved Him by Sally Clarkson. Don’t we all have “different” kids? And isn’t it a gift to be able to appreciate them for who they are, no matter how difficult and challenging the journey? This book and Cindy Rollins’ Mere Motherhood are the best homeschooling/parenting/Christian living books I’ve read in years.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer. Classic mountain-climbing adventure—and tragedy.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. By living with and among the poor, first in a run-down tailer park and then in a tenement building, Mr. Desmond is able to describe first-hand the plight of a few of these millions whose housing situation is unstable at best and tragic at its worst.

Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill by Candice Millard. I’ll read almost anything about Churchill, and Candice Millard is an excellent writer of narrative history.

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan. I bought this book for my son for Christmas—so that I could read it. And Mr. Klavan’s conversion story did not disappoint. This story of a Jewish boy with father issues who became a writer and a conservative news commentator and also something of a comedian is fascinating and never dull or overtly pious. Full review to come soon.

Mere Motherhood: Morning times, nursery rhymes, and my journey toward sanctification by Cindy Rollins. Except for the fact that I have six daughters and two sons while she has eight sons and one daughter, I almost felt as if Cindy and were twins or doppelgängers or something. Cindy Rollins writes about homeschooling and Christian living and motherhood in this book in a way that spoke to my heart and my mind, and she is able to articulate many of the inchoate and unspoken thoughts that I would love to be able to communicate about these important parts of my life. Thanks, Cindy.

The Turquoise Table: Finding Community and Connection in Your Own Front Yard by Kristin Schell. This book shows a way to the kind of hospitality and community I would like to foster in my own neighborhood, but I’m way too introverted and reserved to do it—so far. Here’s to “finding community and connection” in 2018.

Christmas in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1863

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas in Austin, Texas, 1885

A serial killer stalks the women of Austin, Texas:

In an extraordinary Christmas Day meeting, more than five hundred city and business leaders, lawyers, doctors, and clergymen met to devise a plan to stop the killings. There were proposals to light the entire city at night with huge lamps. Governor John Ireland suggested that fire alarms be set off whenever the next attack occurred so that everyone could come out of their houses fully armed to hunt the killer down. A bombastic former Confederate general suggested that sentinels be stationed around Austin to prevent anyone from leaving and that all those within the city be strictly questioned as to their whereabouts on the night of the murders.
None of it would be necessary. Just as suddenly and as inexplicably as they had begun, the attacks stopped. The city was left reeling, torn by questions and consumed with suspicions about who the killer was. And many of those questions, it turned out, revolved around the death of Eula Phillips.

Christmas in Ireland, c.1970

Rumer Godden’s novel, The Diddakoi, features a half-Romany (gypsy) and half-Irish orphan girl named Kizzy who after her grandmother’s death must come to live with the “gorgios”, or non-gypsies. One of those gorgios is Admiral Twiss:

“Admiral Twiss . . . made models, chiefly of ships, sometimes sail, sometimes steam; he never spoke to the village children, nor they to him—they were afraid of the eyebrows and moustache—but he made a model church, big enough for each child to creep into, and every Christmas stood it at the House gates. The church was lit up so that its stained-glass windows shone, every tiny piece perfect, and from inside came music, carols that Kizzy liked to think were tiny people singing—Prudence would have told her at once it was a tape—and at midday and midnight, bells would ring a miniature carillon.
In the wagon Kizzy could hear them and knew it was Christmas. Admiral Twiss, too, always sent Kizzy’s Gran a cockerel for Christmas, some oranges and dates, and a bag of oats for Joe. Sometimes Kizzy thought the oranges and dates were for her; sometimes she thought the Admiral did not know she existed.”

This one is another of my book-buying finds. I knew the author from her adult novels, In This House of Brede and Black Narcissus and also her doll stories for children. This story, of a child who experiences prejudice and bullying but manages to learn to trust the trustworthy adults in her life and with their help overcome the racist attitudes of her peers, looks to be a winner.

Christmas on Galveston Island, Texas, 1840

From Carol Hoff, author of Johnny Texas and Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Road, comes this story, Head to the West, of German immigrants to Texas in the early days of the Texas Republic. in the first chapters of the book, Franz and Rosa and their parents land on the Texas coast on Galveston Island on Christmas Eve:

“They worked until almost dark. With sunset a fine rain began to fall, but the norther the captain expected did not come. The sailors had built two shelters, enclosed on three sides with the sail canvas, open to the west for the fire. Inside they had laid mattresses from the ship, and each woman had carried in a little pile of her belongings.
After a supper of venison steaks broiled over the coals, everyone sat in the women’s shelter and sang Christmas carols. Rosa sat watching the flickering firelight on the faces of the shipwrecked singers as the lovely melody of ‘Silent Night’ flowed about them. Some looked sad and lonesome, and some afraid, but a few were gay with the love of adventure.
Rosa thought of the lonely stretches of sand and sea about them, the wind sighing around their makeshift shelter and the rain dripping from the canvas. She thought of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in faraway Bethlehem. ‘Franz,’ she whispered, ‘I think I understand about Bethlehem and Baby Jesus in the manger better than I ever did before.’
‘Yes,” Franz whispered back. ‘So do I.'”

This book is one I discovered on my most recent book-buying jaunt, at a Half-Price Bookstore in north Houston. I am looking forward to reading the entire story, since the first few chapters that I did read are wonderful.

Christmas in Staffordshire, England, 1585

From A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, in which Penelope lives a divided life between the twentieth century and the fourteenth century at Thackers, a rural farmhouse where the Babington family used to live and where they planned the rescue of the doomed queen, Mary Queen of Scots. As Penelope moves through time, she senses the tragedy that is coming inevitably in the lives of the Babingtons and of Queen Mary.

“The great kitchen was decked with boughs of fir and scarlet-berried holly and many a branch of bay. From a central hook in the beam hung a round bunch of holly and mistletoe intermingled with ribbons and garlands swung in loops across the walls. ‘The Kissing Bunch’ Dame Cicely called the ball of berries and bade me beware of standing under it, for at Christmas every one, young lords and all, would clip and kiss those maids they caught under its shadow.”

“‘Come and see the Yule log Penelope!’ He showed me an enormous log which four men had dragged up to the barn. All the village would come to Thackers on Christmas Day, he said, to eat the roast beef and drink the mulled ale, and they would be asked to the hall to watch the Yule log burn and drink healths, the poorer sorts in barley ale, the farmers in sack and canary wine.
Then there would be gifts of food and woolen stuffs, and some of them would bring presents to Anthony. All would be on equality, with singing and music and play-acting, dressed in garments from the oak chest where I had found my tunic, he added.
There would be church in the morning, and then the great feast, and I must come too, he said, no slipping away.”

“The room was beautiful with leaves and berries hanging in circular wreaths and long twining garlands along the walls, symmetrical and correctly even, unlike the freedom of the boughs in the kitchen. At the far end of the room was a table laid for the Christmas Eve feast, spread with a white linen cloth and set with silver and glass and shining pewter plates, each engraved with the Babington arms. On a raised dais was a table lighted with red candles . . .
MIstress Babington smiled and signed to me to stay still, while she went on with her singing.

In that hall there stands a bed.
The bells of Paradise I heard them ring.
It’s covered all over with scarlet so red,
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.
Under that bed there runs a flood,
The bells of paradise I heard them ring,
The one half runs water, the other half blood,
And I love my Lord Jesus above anything.

At the bed’s foot there stands a thorn,
Which ever blossoms since He was born,
Over that bed the moon shines bright,
Denoting our Savior was born this night.

The sweet notes of the plaintive air and the tinkling of the virginal flowed through the timeless world where I stood, and I thought it was the ringing of bells of ice high in the winter sky.”

Christmas in Cornwall, 1789

From Winston Graham’s second Poldark novel, Demelza:

“It was a fine night and an hour before Sawle Church choir had been up to the door singing carols. Demelza had never had much to do with religion but she still said the prayers her mother taught her, adding a postscript of her own to keep them abreast of the times; and at Christmas she had always felt an inward impulse to go to church. Something in the ancient wisdom of the story and the fey beauty of the carols tugged at her emotions; and with a suitable invitation she would have been willing to join the choir. She specially wanted to help them this evening, hearing their depleted voices struggling through ‘Remember, O thou Man’. But even her enjoyment of the two carols was a little spoiled by anxiety as to how she had best behave when they knocked on the door. She sent Jane Gimlett for the cakes she had made that afternoon and took down a couple of bottles of canary wine from Ross’s cupboard.

Demelza nervously gave them all a drink and took one herself; she would almost sooner have entertained Sir Hugh Bodrogan than these humble choristers; at least she knew where where she was with him. She pressed cakes upon them and refilled their glasses and when they rose to go she gave them a handful of silver—about nine shillings in all—and the carolers crowded out into the misty moonlit night, flushed and merry and opulent. There they gathered round the lantern and gave her one more carol for luck before filing off up the valley towards Grambler.”