Thank you so much for considering Gentleman of Misfortune for your club! As an avid reader and dedicated book club member myself, I always love it when readers get together to discuss the books they love (or don’t).
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Frequently Asked Questions
The book includes some questions I hope you’ll find useful in your discussion, but I have received some additional questions from readers that perhaps you will also find interesting. And I’m always happy to answer any further questions if you put them in the comments below.
1. Did Edgar Allen Poe actually visit the Lebolo mummies on exhibit? Did the exhibit influence his writing of “Some Words with a Mummy?”
I don’t know, but maybe. I do know that Poe was in Baltimore at the same time Michael Chandler and the mummies were there so it’s definitely possible he saw the exhibit. His interaction with Lyman and acceptance of a lozenge from him was merely a nod to Poe’s own story, which certainly could have been influenced by “Address to the Mummy at Belzoni’s Exhibit,” though I doubt the highly critical Poe would have thought much of the poem.
2. How do you know how to make a mummy?
Of course I don’t really know how to make a mummy. That part of the book involved a lot of research and some educated guesswork. I spent time with the work of Dr. Bob Brier, aka “Mr. Mummy,” whose investigations into the Ancient Egyptian embalming practices led him to actually creating a mummy with a donated body. But my unique problem was that I didn’t need to know how the Ancient Egyptians mummified, but rather how a person might have done so in the early 19th century with supplies available to the public.
The first thing I realized I had to do was to provide Lyman with an expert. Since the mummies really were displayed in the Philadelphia Arcade separate from, but in the vicinity of, the Philadelphia Museum, Titian Peale was a logical choice. He also happened to be the world’s foremost expert on taxidermy at the time. I knew from my own brief encounter with taxidermy as a zoology student many years ago, that the processes must in some ways be similar. Fortunately, Peale wrote a detailed pamphlet about the best ways to preserve a variety of animals for display. It says nothing of mummies, but once I understood what materials he worked with and the language and phrasing he used, it wasn’t hard to let him theorize.
3. You hint that the companion novel to Gentleman is about a conspiracy theory having to do with the Book of Mormon. What can you say about that book?
The historical conspiracy theory at the center of the book is known to scholars as the Spalding Enigma, which suggests that the Book of Mormon was plagiarized by Joseph Smith with the aid of early Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon. The theory is plausible, but unproven, and without the manuscript, will likely remain that way. But there are scholars who have pinpointed the when and where the manuscript would have had to disappear from history if it existed in the first place. How it might have disappeared is still a mystery. Smoke Rose to Heaven imagines the how as it follows the story of Ada, the little girl who appears with her aunt and uncle in Gentleman of Misfortune. Of course Lyman is in that book, too, though he plays a smaller role. I wrote Smoke first, and when I met Lyman, I just knew he had a larger story to tell.
4. Were there really pirates on the Erie Canal?
It does seem ridiculous. In fact, there’s even a picture book by Eric Kimmel about the Erie Canal pirates and what a silly notion it is that there could ever be pirates on what is essentially a shallow, narrow ditch.
There’s no particularly compelling scholarship out there about the subject that I’ve been able to find, but there is folklore about a band of guerillas that managed to hide out on a narrow island created when a canal was cut alongside the narrow creek that served as the connecting point to Lake Erie. From there, they allegedly attacked boats coming into Buffalo on dark nights. Is it true? I’m not sure. But it does make a pretty good story.
5. Why did you choose to let Lyman get away with his crimes? He’s not a great guy. Shouldn’t he be punished?
I admit I wasn’t anticipating this reaction from readers, but that’s probably because I have read the other, as yet unpublished, book so I know how Lyman’s full story arc concludes. I don’t want to reveal too much, but I can promise you that Lyman does face consequences for his many dark deeds.