“Book Review: Fedor”
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A circus performer finds true friends in this historical novel of social disadvantage
This fictionalized life story of the late-19th-century-man Fedor Adrianovitch Jefticheff brings us behind the scenes of “The Greatest Show on Earth!” It reveals the indignities and heartbreaks of the performers who had little other choice in life but to join the circus.
Born in 1868 to parents so poor that they slept on the stove to keep warm, Fedor is a gentle, perceptive boy who loves literature. In addition to his native Russian, he is fluent in German and English. He grows into a man who is interested in the welfare of his friends and who occasionally dares to hope that one day he will find romance. We meet Fedor first as we would meet any other person and gradually come to understand the situation that distinguishes his life.
From his father, Fedor has inherited a condition of excessive hair growth all over his body, including his face beyond a typical beard. He and his father are put on display at a carnival in Russia. The man who runs the carnival tells spectators that these hairy men eat raw animal prey, upon which cue Fedor and his father to performatively bark like dogs.
Nicholas II, the future tsar, who happens to be the same age as Fedor, takes notice of him in a cage. At age 16, Fedor goes to the United States to work for P. T. Barnum’s circus. Barnum’s employees have a conflicted relationship with him: he is a charismatic protector who pays them, but he is also essentially their captor.
He does not allow his employees to interact with the rest of the world in their spare time. He reasons that, because the public pays to see them at the circus, to allow them normal interactions in society would cheapen the value of what he is selling. The circus is always on the move, anyway, to reach new audiences.
The contours of Fedor’s social landscape, artificially isolated as it is, include a seven-ton African elephant called Jumbo and big cats who can eat up to 50 pounds of meat a day. “I could smell them, a wild earthiness,” he says, bringing us readers onto the fairgrounds with him. He’s also exposed to the riggers and roustabouts, the laborers who set up and take down the circus tents. He gets to meet the author Herman Melville (who has a real conversation with him) and the future president Teddy Roosevelt (who likes to talk more than listen).
Fedor inevitably spends most of his time with other people who, like himself, feature as sideshow acts in the circus. We generally meet them as individuals first, too, before we learn how they are being caricatured on the stage. (In Barnum’s show, Fedor was famously billed as “Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy.”)
Vickers mostly avoids the language of the sideshow, except insofar as these terms did represent official job descriptions, contributed to the specific ways in which those people were oppressed, and influenced how they bonded with each other. In revealing a glimpse of the language but not dwelling on it, Vickers skillfully strikes a balance and succeeds in reframing those depictions.
Fedor is not only a story of someone who was marked as “different.” It is an example of how literature inspires a life. It shows us how someone can love, lose, and love again. It offers a viewpoint of the world as seen from a 19th-century circus, when rail travel was still new and growing, and when Barnum’s private train “painted bright red, orange, pink, yellow, and blue” allowed this group of people to tour the United States while simultaneously holding them trapped.
In their travels, they didn’t “see the sights” so much as come to know what it felt like to be a spectacle. This is an important part of history that helps us understand ourselves today. The character of Fedor in particular, as Vickers portrays him, also shows us something new, making us feel—as he feels—the ever-shifting dynamic between resignation and hope.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Print Length: 314 pages
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