America is full of forgotten places. Some were never known to more than a few people to begin with; others spent considerable time in the zeitgeist before that fickle friend moved on to another place, another thing. Coney Island falls into the latter category. America’s first amusement park–though that description doesn’t really cover its breadth in its heyday–served as a social center for the States at the turn of the century, only to be overshadowed by the Walt Disneys and Universals of the world. Chris tells me Coney Island isn’t what it used to be, but for a glimpse of its halcyon days, read The Lost Tribe of Coney Island.
Not that the book is only–or even primarily–about the titular island, but Coney Island looms tall in the semi-tragic story of the small group of Igorrotes, a native tribe from the Philippines. It looms not only because the middle section of the book takes place there, but because the attitudes and national sentiment that made Coney Island what it was–the willingness to try anything, the passionate pursuit of novelty–are necessary ingredients in the tale of Truman Hunt–lieutenant governor, showman, shyster, fugitive–and his quest to make a bunch of money by displaying the Igorrotes for a curious and vouyeristic public.
Selling the exhibit with the sensationalism of dog-eating and headhunting, Truman wasn’t about to let little things like a new wife and child, the Igorrotes’ sacred customs, or basic human decency get in the way of making some money and giving the people what they wanted. As with most debacles, it didn’t start out this way. Though he was always controlling, Truman starts the story with what seems like a genuine, if somewhat patronizing, regard for the natives. As time goes on, however, his treatment of them grows worse and worse, until the entire group ends up on the run from the law. Tribe ends up in a pair of courtroom battles; unfortunately, since this is a true story, they don’t end with the Igorrotes mounting a passionate defense while Truman looks on agape. Instead (SPOILERS FOR A TRUE STORY), they win their first trial only to be pulled back into a second, which they lose when Truman’s attorney appeals to the racism and bigotry of the jury.
There’s a bittersweet coda to the book, but ultimately, it paints a vivid picture of an America that no longer exists, for better or for worse. It would be nice to think that we’re above the sort of “strange culture as entertainment” in our enlightened age; unfortunately, one look at TLC tells us that some things never change.
Because of family events, I’m writing this review well after I’ve finished the book. In case it’s not clear, this is a great book. Well-written and one of the most entertaining nonfiction books I’ve ever read, if the premise interests you at all, do pick it up.