Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 10/14/2014
eBook, 416 pages
My Thoughts:Readers of Erik Larson will love this tale of sex, greed, and the American dream: A huckster imports a tribe of Filipinos to Coney Island’s Luna Park, and two cultures collide.The Lost Tribe of Coney Island unearths the forgotten story of the Igorrotes, a group of “headhunting, dog-eating savages” from the Philippines, who were transported to New York in 1905 to appear as “human exhibits” alongside the freaks and curiosities at Coney Island’s Luna Park. Millions of fair-goers delighted in their tribal dances and rituals, near-nudity, tattoos, and stories of headhunting.Journalist Claire Prentice, who has spent years researching the topic, brings the story to life with her fluid prose and vivid descriptions. The book boasts a colorful cast of characters, including the disgraced lieutenant turned huckster Truman K. Hunt; his Filipino interpreter, Julio Balinag; the theme park impresarios behind Luna Park, Fred Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy; and Dogmena, a beautiful girl who became a favorite with New York’s social elite. The Lost Tribe of Coney Island is a fascinating social history and a tale of adventure, culture-clash, and the American dream.
The Lost Tribe of Coney Island by Claire Prentice is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of Truman K. Hunt's use and abuse of a tribe of Filipinos, specifically Igorrotes, who were brought to America in 1905 and put on display at Coney Island’s Luna Park. As Prentice points out, "Ultimately, this is a story of a hero turned villain that makes us question who is civilized and who is savage."
Although in the end only Hunt and the fifty-one Filipinos who traveled with him to America knew the precise details of everything that transpired between them, it is safe to say after reading Prentice's remarkable account that the Igorrotes were degraded and essentially became slaves to Hunt's greed. The fact that Hunt brought human beings from another culture to America and then was allowed to put them on display was in and of itself nauseating. Adding insult to injury was the fact that he stole and cheated them out of the compensation he said he would be providing to them.
"Savage or innocent, noble or childlike. The Igorrotes were like one of the distorting mirrors at the Coney funfair. How they were portrayed reflected the views of those looking at them more often than it gave a true picture of the Igorrotes themselves." ( Location 1653) Hunt insisted that they kill and eat a dog daily for the "show" even though dog was not a main staple of their diets.
"The sacrifice of a dog was an important Igorrote custom and, though they were reluctant to say anything at first, some of the tribe felt the daily dog feasts at Coney were undermining their cultural significance. Not only that, but their bodies couldn’t digest all of the meat that they were being given. On behalf of them all, the tribal chief approached Julio [the interpreter] with a request that they be allowed to return to a more varied and authentic diet of chicken, pork, fish, rice, beans, and vegetables, with occasional servings of dog." (Location 1257) This authentic portrayal of their diet, of course, would ruin the show Hunt wanted to put on and profited greatly from.
It was really an embarrassment that the Human Society kept turning up to investigate complaints about the treatment of animals in the context of the Igorrotes. Here was a group of people who were brought to America, being taken advantage of, being treated like animals, and "living in squalor and being forced to put on a degrading show for the public and the only complaint this party had was about the treatment of the dog." It was disgusting that no one stopped Hunt and ended the abuse of human beings, let alone animals.
Prentice does an excellent job presenting the results of years of research and telling the story of this disgraceful side show spectacle. It is much to her credit that in The Lost Tribe of Coney Island all the information she uncovers is disclosed in a sympathetic and informative narrative that is nicely paced. It certainly held my attention right to the end, although it did have me shaking my head over what people will do to others. While this is a difficult book to read in terms of subject matter, it is a well-researched account that is presented in a very accessible format and should appeal to a wide variety of readers.
Prentice includes any additional information she has uncovered about the people involved in an Afterword. The book also includes: Acknowledgments, Notes, a Bibliography, Illustration Credits, and an Index.
Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review purposes.