Pyg: The Memoirs of Toby, the Learned Pig

Russell Potter, Author
Russell Potter. Penguin, $14 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-14-312118-3
Reviewed on: 05/14/2012
Release date: 07/31/2012
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In this charming debut novel, Potter imagines—fully and movingly—the story of the “learned pig,” based on an actual 18th-century novelty act that toured the U.K. under the aegis of Samuel Bisset. The real-life pig was simply a trained beast who responded in rote to his master’s commands, but Potter’s conceit is that Toby reads and thinks: the book purports to be his memoir, beginning with his birth in 1781 near Manchester. The lucky pig is saved from the butcher’s block by a boy named Samuel Nicholson (all “characters and places of note” are given thumbnail sketches in an afterword). Toby becomes a sensation, touring England, Scotland, and Ireland, and meeting some of the celebrated figures of the era, including Samuel Johnson, Robert Burns, poet Anna Seward, William Blake, actress Sarah Siddons, and, tellingly, William Wilberforce, an English member of Parliament who was an early abolitionist. It’s a very clever roman à clef; Toby the Learned Pig, with his earnest, understandable quest to be more than a source of amusement, animates this fable about enslavement, liberal education, and, perhaps, animal rights. The use of old-fashioned typography, capitalization, and woodcuts complement the 18th-century prose style, creating an immensely readable, clever, and fun novel. Agent: Malaga Baldi. (Aug.)
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