The Thunder of Giants by Joel Fishbane
Pub. Date: April 14, 2015
Source: ARC via publisher (Thank you, St. Martin’s Press!!)
Summary: The year is 1937 and Andorra Kelsey – 7’11 and just under 320 pounds – is on her way to Hollywood to become a star. Hoping to escape both poverty and the ghost of her dead husband, she accepts an offer from the wily Rutherford Simone to star in a movie about the life of Anna Swan, the Nova Scotia giantess who toured the world in the 19th century.
Thus, Anna Swan’s story unfurls. Where Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan is quickly celebrated for her unique size. Drawn to New York, Anna becomes a famed attraction at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum even as she falls in love with Gavin Clarke, a veteran of the Civil War. Quickly disenchanted with a life of fame, Anna struggles to prove to Gavin – and the world – that she is more than the sum of her measurements.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Recommended for: readers who enjoy a fictional account of real lives, those curious about the hidden world of circus acts
For a novel about giants, The Thunder of Giants is surprisingly slim, clocking in at just over 270 pages. Long-time readers of this blog know I’m a big (oh dear, how many times will I be throwing out words like gigantic, humongous, and huge in this review?) fan of what I’ve dubbed biographical fiction, that off-shoot of fiction – typically historical – that takes on the life of an actual historical figure. A Hapsburg empress. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Parisian artists. If there’s a story to be told, I’m on board, so when I was approached about The Thunder of Giants, a novel depicting the life of 8-foot-tall Anna Swan, I was ecstatic!
Told in two voices, The Thunder of Giants bounces between Anna’s story from her birth in the 1840s through the Civil War and on into adulthood, and Andorra Kelsey’s life in the 1930s. Anna with her humble upbringing, Andorra with her heartbreaking childhood. By the 1930s, Hollywood has become interested in producing a movie about PT Barnum’s famed giantess and it’s by luck (good or bad, that’s for you to decide) that a talent scout comes across Andorra and, despite fainting with stage fright as a child, she agrees to travel back to California.
While I enjoyed this book and its fast pace, I can’t ignore the one issue I had: Anna was a living, breathing person (look up photos of her – it’s mindblowing!) Andorra, however, is pure fiction, entirely the author’s creation. Perhaps this is just me, but the entire time I was reading, I kept confusing the two. Who was it again that was the actress? Wait, wait, was that Anna who was in love with Gavin or was it Andorra? I’m sure I’m partly to blame for not being able to keep the two straight, but I also feel part of the blame falls to the author. The names were simply too similar and were it not for the chapter heading baring dates, I would have spent the entire novel in a whirlwind of frustration.
Despite my grumbling over their names The Thunder of Giants was truly a fascinating read and so far removed from my own life (I’m barely pushing 5′ in heels) that it opened my eyes to everyday things I take for granted. I have never had to bend down when walking around my house out of fear of hitting my head. I have never had to worry about the sturdiness of beds, sofas, and chairs. Silly to think about this now, because of course an 8′ woman would have trouble fitting inside a car! Something so obvious looking back.
Throughout the novel there are threads involving family secrets, mysterious parentage, and lost love. Characters I adored at first I grew to hate and characters I didn’t particularly care for ended up stealing the show. There is a moral at the end and while I wouldn’t exactly label it a sitcom-style ending (it’s certainly not all sunshine and roses) I was satisfied. Even better, Joel Fishbane did his job and now I’m curious about diving deeper into Anna Swan’s life. So for that, congratulations, Mr. Fishbane!
Although The Thunder of Giants won’t be reappearing on my Top Reads of 2015 list, I absolutely enjoyed the time I spent with it and have no reservations about recommending it to readers of historical fiction.