cover image The Mirror of Monsters and Prodigies

The Mirror of Monsters and Prodigies

Pamela Ditchoff, Author Coffee House Press $12.95 (224p) ISBN 978-1-56689-035-9

This look at physically unusual people through the ages has some interesting moments, but Ditchoff also weighs her fiction debut down with more esoteric information than necessary about such things as the life of an Egyptian dwarf in 2500 B.C. Although called a novel by the publisher, in fact, the book is really just writing about characters, sometimes in their own voices, sometimes in the voices of others--and often Ditchoff skips too quickly from one to the next. The voices are inconsistent: in 1500 B.C., the unnaturally large sons of Anak speak in modern rhythms, while in the mid-1800s an African American man from Georgia speaks in heavy, transliterated dialect. There are tidbits to be gleaned here--the role that dwarves played in the courts of the Russian czars, for example--but much of the historical background reads like explication. Ditchoff is best on the 20th century and when she points out uncomfortable details, as when a fireman talks about saving ``all of them freaks'' when P.T. Barnum's American Museum burned or ``the living torso'' recalls discovering his adolescent sexuality. In the final section, the moving and imaginative story of hermaphrodite Johnny/Johanna, Ditchoff has far greater success at subtly pointing out the hidden strangeness everyone carries. (Sept.)