Along with my love of medical history, I also love stories of old-timey circus days. I've seen a number of documentaries that mention the story of Chang & Eng, and have always been intrigued by the late 19th century Siamese, or conjoined, twins who escaped near execution by decree of the King of Siam to find relative but somewhat fleeting fame and fortune in America. They also took on the surname Bunker and went on to become husbands, fathers and farmers!
Right: Chang, his wife Adelaide, and their son Patrick Henry;
Left: Eng, his wife Sarah, and their son Albert
(what is with the stink eyes, ladies?!)
Thanks to Darin Strauss and his novel Chang and Eng, I found even more interest in their story when I discovered that when they semi-retired from the circus / sideshow circuit, they found wives Adelaide and Sarah (sisters) and settled to lives as farmers in Wilkesboro, NC - very close to my town!
Chang and Eng began life in the Mekong River area of Siam, now known as Thailand. Though their birth was greatly anticipated by their parents, aunt, and the community in general, once their conjoined condition was seen, nearly everyone but their mother fled in horror. Chang & Eng grow up in the fishing community of their father, in a humble but happy and loving home of their mother's making. In the midst of this sheltered childhood, the twins are summoned by the King Of Siam, who plans to execute them, seeing them as a freakish curse on the city. Surprisingly though, upon meeting the twins, the king finds himself amused by their personalities and decides to let them live, though they must live at the palace basically as court entertainment. Chang and Eng go along with this for a few years but really start to miss their mother and eventually make a successful escape back to the humble hut on the river. As the twins, young men by now, make plans to become fishermen / businessmen in their community, they are approached with an offer to come to America, to make great riches to send back to their mother (though they're never given a clear answer to how this is to happen). With their mother's encouragement, they reluctantly agree to board ship and sail over here, so beginning the more famous part of their life story. Poor boys are bewildered and bamboozled until Barnum comes along and offers them a way out of their screwed up contract with the small time outfit they're stuck with.
Understandably, the brothers don't always get along, but can you imagine literally never having a moment to yourself, ever? Eng goes batty hoping to convince his brother to do the separation operation but he and his brother prove to be a study in opposites, with Chang content enough as is. Eng seems to be the bookish, serious brother while Chang seems to be the happy-go-lucky, live in the moment type of guy. Eng also seems to have a tinge of bitterness to him while Chang seems to see everything either as an adventure or an opportunity to smile or learn something. Chang is all for marrying the Yates sisters while Eng is hesitant, to say the least. He cant understand why the sisters would want to marry them. Chang basically tells him to stop analyzing so much, Chang found love and the girl said yes. Good enough for him. (Not bad reasoning there!) Chang and his lady love work on Eng and her sister until they agree to become a couple as well.
Fast forward some years and these two have solidified their legacy -- more than 20 offspring between them! But I think the thing that stumped and amazed me the most about their story is the idea of Chang, later in life, battling alcoholism while Eng becomes a temperance advocate. How did that ever work between them?? There's even a scene in this novel where Chang takes a swig right in the middle of a Temperance speech Eng is giving! Also, what was with the Temperance ladies sipping opium tea?
This book is beautifully written but have yourself a cheery, breezy book waiting in the wings for after you finish this one. As much as it kept me reading, the bad luck and constant misfortunes of these boys left a pretty dark cloud over me by reading's end. I had to cleanse my bookworm palate with a fluffy book or two to get my happy back! But I loved coming across this Fanny Kemble bit:
A sacred burden is this life ye bear
Look on it, lift it solemnly
Stand up and walk beneath it steadfastly
Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin
But onward, upward, til the goal ye win!