In the seventh stand-alone book of The American Novels series, Ellen Finch, former stenographer to Henry James, recalls her time as an assistant to Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her friendship with the diminutive Margaret, one of P. T. Barnum’s circus 'eccentrics.' When her infant son is kidnapped by the Klan, Ellen, Margaret, and the two formidable suffragists travel aboard Barnum’s train from New York to Memphis to rescue the baby from certain death at the fiery cross.
... dark, carnivalesque ... The novel takes broad liberties with timelines and beloved figures ... [a] blistering satire of race relations in America ... hammer[s] home how ugly and absurd history is in hindsight, and how little changes ... The fascinating historical novel American Follies features lavish period details and unsettling alternative world building, warping expectations and standing out for its rapier wit.
It seems that when you mix 19th-century racists, feminists, misogynists, freaks, and a flim-flam man, the spectacle that results might bear resemblance to the contemporary United States ... Besides playing with historical figures and themes, Lock’s novels stretch the limits of literary conventions. Those unfamiliar with the series may expect more reality with their history, but once you accept that the novel is a wild ride, hang on for the fun. Highly recommended, especially for readers of the series.
Our national history and literature are Norman Lock’s playground ... from such dark materials, Lock fashions surprisingly entertaining fiction ... By the time Ellen, Margaret, Anthony and Stanton board Barnum’s private train for Memphis, where the baby is to be 'sacrifice[d] at the foot of the fiery cross,' readers may well feel as 'overwhelmed with absurdity' as Ellen ... Lock isn’t striving for credibility in the events that erupt from there, or for an emotional response to the fraught subject of an infant’s abduction and threatened murder. He aims to make palpable Barnum’s contention that 'history is one smashup piled on top of another, the shards glued together with irony.' Since Barnum proves to be both the plot’s deus ex machina and the deliverer of the novel’s most terrifying speech, we may conclude that Lock expects us to keep an ironic distance as well. The belated revelation of the cause of Ellen’s delusions is almost beside the point ... an ambitious book that sprawls over some material that could have been better developed, in particular the intermittent attempts to see race relations through the lens of a minstrel show. Nonetheless, this provocative, funny and sobering novel makes another valuable addition to Norman Lock’s impressive body of work ... Despite the American Novels’ dark subject matter, their impact is exhilarating as well as scarifying. In American Follies as in its predecessors, Lock’s supple, elegantly plain-spoken prose captures the generosity of the American spirit in addition to its moral failures, and his passionate engagement with our literary heritage evinces pride in its unique character possibly equal to his chagrin over our bloodstained past.