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. (goodreads.com)
If it’s about Coney Island I’ll read it so it’s no surprise that when THE LOST TRIBE OF CONEY ISLAND came up while I was browsing through NetGalley that I immediately requested it. And got approved by the publisher. For the past ten or so years I’ve held a fascination with Coney Island, especially as it was during its heyday back at the turn of the century (20th, not 21st). It makes me sad to think about what it’s become now so I like to remind myself what it was. I have a few Coney history books on my shelf and I certainly wouldn’t mind adding this one to it.
I’ve never been one for sideshows and I’ve never seen the acts when I’ve gone down to Coney but getting behind the scenes of this uprooted tribe interested me. Prentice took care to really make them people and characters in their own story instead of things passed around by a rather unscrupulous, glorified carnie. She really didn’t insert too much of her own opinion into the story and instead kept to the facts, which spoke all the truth that was needed. What started off as a seemingly good-natured tour of indigenous people turned into a cattle call of squalor at the expense of human beings for the sake of some coin.
Prentice certainly did her research and did a great job in setting the scene beyond just the tribe and their window of American life. She painted an age, a carnival scene that people craved and shed a light on a world that I don’t think too many people know all that much about, especially since it was all in a rather prudish time in history. One doesn’t really think of corseted women attending a boardwalk fiasco for entertainment but they did. Her settings were so vivid I really needed very few words to paint a picture for me.
She really stayed on task, too. There was a lot of political turmoil going on at that time, domestic and international, that she certainly could have gone off on a tangent on but she kept to the story, only dropping international relations information when it became relevant within the storyline. I’m mainly talking about the US/Philippine relationship at that time. I know very little about it but there was a lot of independence talk and there was a whole group of people that vehemently opposed the touring of indigenous groups for gain around the US. But this isn’t a political book. It’s outlining historical facts in a chronological order, of a specific group of people and their relationship to the man that was supposed to be their caretaker but turned into their zookeeper. I liked it. This was the world of the book but Prentice didn’t keep you sheltered in this story.
THE LOST TRIBE OF CONEY ISLAND is a very specific historical book so I think the niche for something like this is pretty small but I think anyone with a fascination about carnivals or boardwalks and what it was like during their boom I think should take a read of this one. Not to mention it’ll put you in the middle of the lives of people that I think readers wouldn’t otherwise get exposure to, and learn about a small span of time in US history that a lot of people are otherwise unaware of. Her storytelling voice is soothing and does its job in lulling you into it’s finite plot. The world of Coney Island will rise up around you and the story of this tribe of people will suck you in the rest of the way.