By: Brant Vickers
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Publication Date: May 2021
Reviewed by: Barbara Bamberger Scott
A most remarkable man overcomes the odds in a vivid portrait of an early circus denizen in this wide-ranging, literate view by author Brant Vickers.
Fedor Adrianovitch Jefticheff was born in 1868 in Russia, in abject poverty. In addition to the family’s desperate financial straits, both Fedor and his father had a medical condition known as hypertrichosis - covered with thick hair on face and body giving them an animal-like appearance. Both became circus performers, touted as savages found in the wild and ordered to act and sound like dogs for their gawping audience.
Fedor, as styled by Vickers in this fictionalized speculation about his life and times, is fortunate to meet and bond with the future Tsar Nicholas II, who takes a personal interest in his condition and arranges for him to gain employment in the United States with the rising star of showmanship, Phineas T. Barnum. Barnum seeks wild animals and talented acrobats as well as unusually constructed human specimens – called “freaks”- first for his museum and then for his traveling entourage. Fedor is not only a genuine curiosity with his furred face and body, but also a high-powered intellectual, having read the books of Tolstoy as a child, speaking several languages, and endeavoring to keep abreast of the literature of his times. As painted by Vickers, he is blessed to meet, through Barnum, Mark Twain, and through Twain, a growing chain of notables including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Louisa May Alcott, and even Geronimo. As “Jo-jo the Dog-faced Boy,” Fedor blends easily with the other performers in the depressingly named “Black Tent”: the diminutive fellow known to the public as “General Tom Thumb,” the bearded and tattooed ladies, the helpless aboriginals captured for their exotic looks, and the cruelly designated “Turtle Boy,” “Camel Girl,” “Zip the Pinhead,” and the “Elephant Man,” - whose titles offer a perverse description of their birth defects and disabilities. When Fedor bonds with a charming, brainy female from the Tent cohort, and the circus begins an inevitable transformation that will exclude the freak displays, he must make a momentous decision.
Author Vickers served in the military, lived overseas, and found his “true profession” working with individuals with special needs, a profession that evoked his investigation of the experiences of people like Fedor. Added to this personal interest is his scholarly approach to the subject matter, cleverly drawing together the many now well-known intellects of the era such as Twain, Herman Melville, and Arthur Conan Doyle, weaving their perspectives into the narrative. Added to the mix is colorful circus slang - terms like gillys (locals), riggers (workers who set up the many tents and structures), and criers (announcers). The tapestry that emerges makes for an enjoyable and highly thought-provoking reading experience.
Quill says: Fedor’s first-person account as created so deftly by Vickers will enchant those familiar with some of the book’s historical background, while introducing, in a respectful but factual manner to those just learning of it, the often-accepted abuses of disabled folk in our nation’s past.
For more information on Fedor, please visit the book's Goodreads page.