Saturday, January 14, 2012

Jamarch's Menagerie.

Historical fiction is not for everybody. But I really enjoy a good fictional romp through real events. This one brought to life the characters, lives, sights, sounds and smells of its time.

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch is an engaging story set in the eighteen hundreds. Jaffy Brown spends his early childhood surviving poverty and street life in London's East End. He lives with his mother in an overcrowded dwelling where they manage a meager existence. 
Things change, when eight year old Jaffy chances upon an escaped tiger. Jaffy pats the tiger on the nose and it picks him up in its mouth and carries him a short distance. He is rescued by the owner of the beast, one Charles Jamarch. 

Strangely, this part of the novel is actually true. German born Charles Jamrach was a well known dealer of wild animals in London at the time. He would pay sailors to bring him exotic animals from all over the world and sell them to zoos, naturalists and private collectors. And there was an actual Bengal tiger that escaped its enclosure and picked up an eight year old boy who patted its nose. The boy was rescued by Jamarch himself, and was unhurt. There is a statue to commemorate the event in Tobacco Dock in Wapping.

Back to the story, Jamarch gives Jaffy a job where he stays and looks after the animals. He makes friends with another young employee, Tim. The boys, and Tim's twin sister grow up together and Jaffy falls in love with the sister, Ishbel.

At the age of sixteen Jaffy is employed, with Tim by Dan Rymer, an agent for Jamarch. They are to travel on The Essex, a whaling ship to the Dutch East Indies to catch a dragon. I'm assuming that they went to what is now Indonesia to catch a kimodo dragon, the world's largest lizard.
And catch a dragon they do. After that disaster strikes, and as sailors are traditionally a superstitious lot, they blame the dragon. The Essex was a real whaling ship, and the events that happened to both ship and crew are also true.

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