Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, PT. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison by Michael Daly presented my biggest challenge to reviewing books for Booklist so far.
My difficulty with Topsy was the author's unrelenting depiction of 19th century American corruption and cruelty. The entertainment entrepreneurs who ran circuses and amusements cheated employees, customers, and retailers without remorse. Newspapers pandered to the grand and insincere pronouncements of the circus barons, and the public bought up the papers and rushed to the shows whenever they came to town. Rough criminals followed the circuses to towns, where they picked pockets and stole laundry from clothes lines while families attended shows. Police were paid off to look the other way. There is rarely an honest or kind person in Topsy.
Worst of all, almost everyone abused the animals. Most elephant trainers were ill-paid, alcoholic men who seemed to hate the animals; they seemed to enjoy beating animals that did not follow commands. The circus masters turned a blind eye. The elephants were often chained together and unprotected from heckling crowds. Drunks gave them drinks of beer and whisky. Gangs of boys offered apples laced with hot peppers. The abuse went on and on. I started dreading what I might find when I turned a page.
When researchers for Edison and Westinghouse began animal tests of electrocutions, I knew where the author was leading.
I would not have finished the book if I had not had an obligation to Booklist and its readers. Regardless of how uncomfortable I felt reading, Topsy tells a story that needs to be told. Here is a book to counter the idea that our country was a much better place in the past.
Daly, Michael. Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, PT. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013. ISBN 9780802119049.