Chang and Eng

( 11 )


In this stunning novel, Darin Strauss combines fiction with astonishing fact to tell the story of history’s most famous twins. Born in Siam in 1811—on a squalid houseboat on the Mekong River—Chang and Eng Bunker were international celebrities before the age of twenty. Touring the world’s stages as a circus act, they settled in the American South just prior to the Civil War. They eventually married two sisters from North Carolina, fathering twenty-one children between them, and lived for more than six decades ...

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Chang and Eng

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In this stunning novel, Darin Strauss combines fiction with astonishing fact to tell the story of history’s most famous twins. Born in Siam in 1811—on a squalid houseboat on the Mekong River—Chang and Eng Bunker were international celebrities before the age of twenty. Touring the world’s stages as a circus act, they settled in the American South just prior to the Civil War. They eventually married two sisters from North Carolina, fathering twenty-one children between them, and lived for more than six decades never more than seven inches apart, attached at the chest by a small band of skin and cartilage.

Woven from the fabric of fact, myth, and imagination, Strauss’s narrative gives poignant, articulate voice to these legendary brothers, and humanizes the freakish legend that grew up around them. Sweeping from the Far East and the court of the King of Siam to the shared intimacy of their lives in America, Chang and Eng rescues one of the nineteenth century’s most fabled human oddities from the sideshow of history, drawing from their extraordinary lives a novel of exceptional power and beauty.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
The story of Chang and Eng, the famous Siamese twins for whom the term was coined, is one everyone seems to know. And yet, how much does any of us really know about them?

Darin Strauss, homesick from work and channel-surfing, happened upon Oprah when she was doing a show on conjoined twin girls. As the two jumped up and said in perfect harmony, "We're a big girl now," Strauss was struck by the mystery of that one statement and thus began a three-year journey into the lives of the Siamese twins that would become Chang and Eng. Written from Eng's point of view, Strauss sought to humanize the struggle of the twins, and in doing so, has brought forth a beautifully imagined story, after which no reader will be able to think of them again as mere biological oddities or freaks in a sideshow.

But aside from detailing their lives, what Strauss does best in this debut historical novel is to separate the twins; with magnificent psychological insight, he does what no one else has dared, giving them separate identities, never to be blurred again. (Spring 2000 Selection)

The Barnes & Noble Review

They share a stomach and other organs and, by necessity, a fate. In Chang and Eng, first novelist Darin Strauss performs the surgery no doctor could undertake, granting these famous Siamese twins a measure of solitude and the distinctly separate lives they could never know. From the cramped Mekong River houseboat where they were born to the crowded bedroom where, with their wives, the twins conceived 21 children, Strauss takes Chang and Eng out of the freak-show spotlight to glimpse the passionate longings and ironic hopes burning in the conjoined breasts of two extraordinary brothers.

"Mekong Fishermen stay abreast of change," says the twins' father. "Rivermen's judgment helps one to make the appropriate decisions at the appropriate moment and diminish the influence of fate." This is the motto by which Eng, the taller and "right side" of the twins, attempts to guide himself and his brother through a life that is as unpredictable as it is unforgiving. Chang and Eng's saga begins in 1811, on a meager floating home on the Mekong River in Siam. They pass their early years under the protection of their loving mother and the guidance of a father who teaches them his "twin passions"—fishing and a fearsome Gung-Fu, adapted to accommodate their double form. Their bodies are completely formed, attached at the chest by a band of ligament and flesh that, in childhood, requires them to remain face-to-face but in later years grows to to allow them to walk side by side, each with an arm around the other's shoulder. As rumors spread of the fabled "Double-Boy," Chang and Eng are plagued by primitive doctors who wish to separate them (something Eng desires desperately, although it would surely kill them both) and terrorized by other children. Eventually, word of their existence reaches as far as the king of Siam, who believes them to be a bad omen and orders that they be captured and brought to Bangkok to be destroyed.

Fortunately for the anomalous pair, the king finds them entertaining and instead uses them to impress the emperor of Cochin China. Thus, at the age of seven, they begin the journey that will lead them to America, where they achieve a modest fame (becoming the attraction for which the term "Siamese Twins" was coined) and are courted (unsuccessfully) by P. T. Barnum, who offers to establish them as a sideshow in his circus.

Strauss's ambitious novel not only explores the dualities that exist within an individual but also the ironies that are implicit when two individuals are physically joined. In alternating chapters, Chang and Eng reveal how they became famous as a human spectacle, as well as the later and in many ways more fascinating part of their lives, when they meet and marry Adelaide and Sarah Yates. This paired narrative describes how the twins strive to live lives they had believed impossible—that of married family men, farmers sharing a domestic life in North Carolina. The two stories evolve at an even pace, each with its own timeline, so the leaps back and forth between their early and later lives are not disruptive. Rather, the two story lines motivate each other, revealing not only the impossibly sad longings for normalcy in a life as a public curiosity but also a candid look at the curiosities of their marriages and their—quite literally—tangled love lives.

Although Chang and Eng is extensively researched, Strauss makes wise and gentle use of the biographical record, giving the characters and their fictionalized private lives precedence over the historical gaps or fabled accounts that could constrain the telling. From mutant boys of the Mekong River to the playthings of the king of Siam, curiosities shanghaied from their homeland by opportunistic businessmen to slaveholding North Carolina planters at the dawn of the Civil War, Chang and Eng are treated as characters and not as subjects, their fates impossible to predict. Although Eng's lifelong desire to be alone—severed from his brother—robs both their lives of a certain level of contentment, his fate is ultimately one of separation. At the age of 63, he awakens to find that his brother is dead and knows that his own death is imminent. How he copes with finally getting his wish proves the truth of his father's adage.

Chang and Eng's struggle to live as individuals in a body the world saw as a single, nonhuman creature is nothing short of heartbreaking. But in Strauss's story, the "creature" dissolves, allowing us to experience in Chang and Eng's lives our own conflicted needs and hopes and to see that their tale is, against all odds, a profoundly human one.

From the Publisher
“Stunning.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Richly imagined...a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.”—Los Angeles Times

Chang and Eng rocks with twisted passion, wickedly astute ruminations and a sly and powerful wit.”—James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential

Publishers Weekly
In his stunning debut. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. This dense fiction succeeds as far more than sensational expose. The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish to be seen as ordinary." -April 10, 2000
Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "extraordinarily creative, imaginative and disturbing" first novel offers an "intimate and revealing portrait" of Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins for whom the term was coined. Following the twins from poverty to wealth, hopeless solitude to boundless love, it reveals the longings and humanity of two remarkable human beings. "A poignant exploration of humanity and of the bond between siblings."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Astonishing...dazzling...Strauss proves himself to a be a writer of great imaginative gifts...a risky, ambitious and beautifully realized novel.
New York Times Book Review
Humor...humanity...aching sadness...a story of heroic longing.
Los Angeles Times
Strauss elevates Chang and Eng's story far beyond the sideshow...a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.
Boston Globe
An ambitious, assured first novel...Strauss imagines these men in full. They are given voice, their fears, hopes, and dreams made vital...memorable.
Michiko Kakutani
A nuanced...affecting portrait... . Evident is the author's sympathy for his characters and his ability to convey the brothers' enduring love for each other. —The New York Times
New Yorker
As lyrical as it is daring.
People Magazine
New York Newsday
An effortlessly original, deeply human portrait.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his stunning debut, Strauss fictionalizes the lives of famous conjoined brothers Chang and Eng Bunker, whose physical oddity prompted the term Siamese twins. With compelling characterizations and precise, powerful prose, this audacious work should appeal equally to fans of historical, psychological and literary fiction. Born in the Kingdom of Siam in 1811, the twins are joined together at the chest by a seven-inch-long ligament that contains a part of their stomach, the only organ they share. Apart from this band of flesh, they are completely separate individuals with different personalities and needs. Serious and reserved Eng narrates their story, which begins on their parents' boat on the Mekong River. They are soon the object of curiosity, condemned to death when they are six years old by Siam's superstitious King Rama, who then changes his mind and exploits them as freaks. An unscrupulous American promoter brings them to America in 1825. Eng reads Shakespeare, preaches temperance and, all his life, wishes desperately to be separated. Chang is outgoing and garrulous, drinks heavily which angers Eng, who must also experience the effects of Chang's indulgence and cannot see himself as less than two. As young boys, the first time the brothers see other children their own age, their philosophical differences are apparent: "`They are half formed!' Chang whispered. To me [Eng] they seemed liberated." The brothers find celebrity as a circus act displayed in a cage in the U.S. and abroad, become aware of the political tumult preceding the Civil War, and marry sisters in North Carolina and father 21 children between them--yet this dense fiction succeeds as far more than sensational expos . The author gracefully confronts the complicated issues of race, gender, infidelity, and identity, as well as the notion of what is normal. Strauss's vivid imagination, assiduous research and instinctive empathy find expression in a vigorous, witty prose style that seduces the reader and delivers gold in a provocative story of two extraordinary men who wish only to be seen as ordinary. Agent, John Hodgman. June FYI: Strauss was featured in "A Budding Crop of First Fiction" PW, Jan. 10. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Chang and Eng remain the most famous conjoined twins in history--the phrase "Siamese twins" was coined in reference to them--but this work is most definitely a work of fiction. First novelist Strauss tells their story through the eyes of an aging Eng, who shares his petty grievances with the reader but rarely speaks with his brother. The "distance" between the twins is at first intriguing, but one comes to crave more details about the relationship, and in the end nothing is made of the theoretical bond between the lead characters. The plot takes us from their childhood in Siam through their married lives, but P.T. Barnum, who made them wealthy and famous, is largely absent from the book. Strauss instead seems preoccupied with the physical logistics of their sex lives and endless conjectural detail. Whether the subject of a given incident in their individual marriages or a moneymaking tour, the author's extrapolations of actual events are often less interesting than the facts themselves, and one senses the subject would have been better handled if the author had created his own characters. Ultimately, Strauss is not up to the task of a historical novel in the style of E.L. Doctorow. Not recommended.--Douglas McClemont, New York Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Los Angeles Times
Strauss elevates Chang and Eng's story far beyond the sideshow, making this a haunting and thoroughly entertaining parable of loyalty and love.
Andrew Santella
By homing in on the basic humanity of the twins' story and working it with such sympathy, Strauss manages to move Chang and Eng from the sideshow stage, placing them at the center of a story of heroic longing . . .Strauss's novel -- its humor, its humanity, its aching sadness -- makes for another fine memorial.
The New York Times Book Review
Emily Jenkins
Chang and Eng imaginatively projects us into a prison of a body so tangible that we come away with a sense of sideshow curiosities satisfied and a deeper understanding of the perversities of human affection.
The Village Voice
The New Yorker
Telling their story from Eng's point of view, Strauss's novel is as lyrical as it is daring, charting the brother's fantastic journey...
Kirkus Reviews
An imposingly original first novel that focuses on unique historical figures: the eponymous Siamese twin brothers (1811-74) who endured opprobrium and despair, became international celebrities, married two American sisters, and fathered 21 children between them. Their amazing story is told by Eng, the more introspective and articulate of the brothers (who are joined at the chest by a fleshy ligament that gradually expands to permit them to rest side by side rather than facing). Eng's narrative, which begins with `the event I have feared since we were a child,` consists of two extended parallel stories: that of the twins' childhood on a houseboat on the Mekong River, appropriation by the epicurean King of Siam, at whose court they are educated and indulged, and their career as traveling `freaks` in America (where showman P.T. Barnum covets their services) and abroad; and that of their adult life in antebellum North Carolina, where they marry the aforementioned (Yates) sisters, prosper as hog farmers and slave owners, and eventually `separate` emotionally, as the ingenuous Chang sinks into alcoholism and Eng must wrestle with both his brother's degradation and his own guilty lust for his brother's wife. In harrowing detail, Strauss has imagined the physical adjustments required of the twins to perform even the simplest quotidian tasks, as well as the psychic strain their `monstrous` condition creates, and he explores with cool precision the equally crippling temperamental contrasts between Chang's ebullient naiveté and Eng's increasing capacity for deceit and emotional coldness. Occasionally the author shows his hand too plainly (for example, when Eng observes that `Thebirth of ourchildren intersected with an odd time for America`). Nonetheless, he presents with impressive delicacy and restraint the unavoidable felt connection between the American Civil War and the brothers' own simultaneously united and divided state. Admirably researched, continuously absorbing, and very moving indeed.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452281097
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/2001
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 700,346
  • Product dimensions: 5.36 (w) x 10.62 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Darin Strauss

Darin Strauss is the award-winning author of the national and international bestseller Chang and Eng, as well as its screenplay for Disney Films and director Julie Taymor.  His work has been translated into 14 languages and he teaches at New York University and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
When First We Met
Monday, December 10, 1842
North Carolina

Chang-Eng," the children chanted. "Mutant, mutant."
Now and then the little innocents sprang from the dust cloud chasing our carriage to cry my name and Chang's. The path we traveled cut through a droughty careworn field, and to either side of us a fast-passing scene of blond grass and dead milkweed thirsted under the burnt sky of sunset. My ear tingled with the nearness of my brother, who picked lint off of my shoulder and knew not to bump my head as he did so. His dark eyes showed little reflections of me. I was thirty-one. My life was about to begin: I was entering North Carolina.
My brother and I did not know that love was soon to deliver us. But twenty-one children and three decades later, how obvious it seems that everything to follow was a consequence of that evening. When you know you are dying, self-deceptions fly from your bedside like embers off a bonfire. Alone in the dark with a final chance to bind together circumstances that have made you a peasant who sells duck eggs on the Mekong one day and the South's most famous temperance advocate the next, you see a curtain open onto the landmark moments of your past.
When Chang and I arrived in North Carolina, we were coming to the end of yet another tour, exhibiting the bond that the public could not see without assuming we two were so very different from everybody else.
The halfwit we'd hired drove at a quick pace. And now, jounced inside a rickety carriage that had the legend THE SIAMESE TWIN in chipping yellow paint on its doors, I was trying to nap beside Chang.
My eyes were not closed for long. My brother tapped my shoulder. "Eng?" I knew better than to ask him to quiet when he was in one of his talkative moods.
"Maybe," Chang said, "you read out loud?" He spoke in a soft voice whenever asking me for something.
"Now?" I made a show of closing my eyes more tightly. "I'd prefer not."
"A Shakespeare speech from your book, make the trip go faster?" There was a shiver in his words from the bustle of our ride. I felt his half of our stomach spasm.
"Let me please catch a little rest," I said, opening an eye. "Why don't you read it yourself?"
"Me? You joking." The listlessness in Chang's smile suggested what it is to spend three decades within five to seven inches of one another. "Eng?" Reporters love to mention that I am the "less dominating member of the pair." A man may be quiet, does that mean he is not assertive?
"Eng?" That we hadn't eaten in hours spoiled his breath.
I shut my eyes tight again. Nailing down a personality is about as easy as pinning marmalade to a wall. I faked a snore.
"Eng!" he said, patience being a luxury allowed those who have more obliging brothers. "I know you not asleep."
The dust of riding whisked us into Wilkesboro, the last stop on this junket of somersaults and smiles that had spanned the eastern seaboard. I could not have imagined that in Wilkesboro we would meet the women who would-for all the kings I'd met and the nations I'd been-make up the kingdom in which I'd walk.
Chang had the driver bridle our two horses to a stop in a grassy square near the center of town: a little commons that had not yet changed its name from "Union Square" to "Westwood Park." This open space was blotchy with killed grass, its unused flagpole stood without purpose in the wind. A line of four threadbare trees gesticulated like marionettes behind the flagstaff.
Townspeople rushed at us from every direction. Dozens of unkempt children and their unkempt parents gathered round our carriage, pointing fingers. The rest of the population climbed on roofs for a better view. My brother grinned at them all. He delivered his patented wave, like a little boy proving with a casual flick that his hand is clean on both sides-the motion Queen Victoria used to greet her masses.
"Come down, carriage man," my brother called out to our driver, wetting my face with spittle. "Will you please open door?"
The driver muttered at us from his buckboard. I asked this idiot, "Did you say something?"
He let us out, his well-shaved cheeks pink as Mekong tuna meat. He said, "Nothing, sirs."
"You are addressing Eng alone." I accepted the man's hand, stepping from the carriage with my brother close on my left. "Do you hear my twin talking? You must say, 'Nothing, sir.'" I was tired and irritable. "When you speak to Eng, you speak to one 'sir,' not two."
Far away, between the rough corners of Wilkesboro's buildings (small white Presbyterian church with no steeple, narrow white beer parlor, small white general store displaying all its stock in its window), rows of sleeping blue mountains hid in shadow, each more blurred than the last. And the full moon had begun its crawl across the sky.
Everything about this environment seemed animated by our arrival: the crowd gathering on all sides of us; the bandy-legged old man in a white suit who limped across Union Square with a yellow rose in his lapel, and the pair of young girls who ran over and walked him arm in arm toward our carriage; the slaves across the courtyard pitching straw and pretending not to look; the dirty little white hands poking our ligament as we stepped from the carriage. Several reached for my face.
"Chang-Eng!" Even the dirtiest of children radiant like they'd just been given candy. "Mutant, mutant!"
"Thank you," Chang and I said as the dust gathered on our identical black suits-tight and crisply English in cut, the very ones Barnum had bought for us. Strolling through the crowd, my brother and I were two complete bodies affixed at the chest by a fleshy, bendable, seven-inch-long ligament resembling a forearm.
"Chang-Eng acknowledging you, good people," Chang said. We crossed Main Street side by side, in the calibrated rhythm of our united movement, arms sweaty over each other's shoulders. Like Chang, I wore my hair in a black braid long enough to curl around my head. I tied it in a blue silk tassel that fell over my brother's shoulder, as his fell over mine.
North Carolina was a welcome change from Boston, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, that series of East Coast cities that even before the War of Yankee Aggression had become as vulgar as a row of women of easy virtue on a street corner. Some believe the war divided America's history in one stroke, all at once advancing Northern manufacturing and the forward parade of Yankee progress. But by December 1842 the North had swelled so hastily it simmered with industry and crime and most of all too many people, while Southern towns like this remained in rural condition, natural as ever. Wilkesboro was among those bygone cheerful hamlets that were so numerous across the map of North Carolina they seemed like stars in the nighttime sky, before Reconstruction hobbled the South. My brother kept his smile and hadn't quit waving to the townsfolk. Few returned his greeting. A yellow-skinned man and his conjoined twin may be admitted into a village in North Carolina, but will never be adopted by it fully.
Main Street was rounded, with a humped center and sloping sides, and it led us across town. Chang and I were silent as we walked; I rarely spoke to him. At all times, a wordless debate concerning the fundaments of movement traveled across our bond like a message across telegraph wire, and that was conversation enough. I called this the Silence, and I was comforted by it.
The people of Wilkesboro had begun to follow us at a distance: here two blond schoolgirls crouched behind a craggy black oak tree to stare; there, in the Law Office Building, under the pressed-metal facade, a few cheerful boys shouted taunts. One brave Negro walked near us before scampering off to giggle behind some wagons tethered to the Court House gallery; across the street near a livery stable a woman froze in her tracks to gape at the Twins, her face turning pale as death. A few townsfolk, however, did smile openly at us as we passed, and let fly a friendly giggle whenever Chang waved.
"Eng," Chang said, crimping his eyes as he often did when he found his happy place in the world. "It is exciting, yes?" With his free hand he smoothed the lapels of his jacket.
"Brother, I don't know what you mean."
Chang was taken off guard; he always managed to discount that we were miles apart in temperament.
"Well," he said, searching my face, "this, I mean!" Crooking our ligament, he drew himself in front of and even closer to me, and he looked over my shoulder at the now large crowd following at our heels. Chang and I continued to walk in this manner-nearly face-to-face, with my brother striding backward-as he flung his hand in the air and waved at the people. Everyone clapped. Chang swung around to face forward again.
It was this sort of pandering showmanship that I hated, and strove to avoid for most of my career. (Like most everybody, I am proud of certain accomplishments: that we never participated in, nor were in any way associated with, an American circus; my predilection for reading, which saved me from the manner of immigrant speech that Chang never lost.)
Main Street came to an end at the Yates Inn. A Southern community such as Wilkesboro, in its distant relation not only to the central government, but also to neighboring villages, believes itself an individual, free from all others. And yet, little inns just like this one were features of nearly all minor Southern towns, and by now Chang and I felt at home loitering by innyards, waiting to be admitted.
Wilkesboro's version of the Southern hostel was a two-story unpainted log house, its modest front yard overgrown with chokecherry. A giant woman sat on the inn's drooping front porch, fanning herself in the skeletal shade of leafless oaks. She was some five hundred pounds, if not more, this innkeeper. Moist patches of her scalp were visible under her thin gray hair, like peat bog spied through the reeds of a marsh, and her hairline gave way to a glistening forehead just as a marsh would open onto a river.
My brother and I came to stand before her, resting our two free hands on the porch railing. The lady innkeeper scrutinized Chang and me in our unforgiving black. "A charming creature"-her bassy voice wiggled the flesh hanging below her chin-"just about as strange as they say." I could not tell whether the woman's face was friendly or taunting. She wore a homemade dress of gray cloth-stuff made with no thought to style. Her skin refused contour. Birds shrieked in the trees.
I imagined this woman a courtier in His Majesty King Rama's palace, bejeweled, dressed in silk while four or five husbands danced around her, runty men with short life spans.
To her left stood a frowning boy in a straw hat with a crooked rim. To her right, a pair of blond women-her daughters, I guessed, though they were not so young-long-faced, flat-chested, and each with lip rouge on her front teeth. The taller one's eyes flickered impatiently, like the wings of little birds. The way she did not turn away in horror gave me the urge to saw through my ligament. It was the light at that hour, or my fatigue pressing in, but I believed she was smiling at me.
My brother's skin was mucky as the Mekong itself, his breathing a gasp.
The declining sun acted on the girl's fine hair, cutting it into elements of gold and pink gold and shadow. She blushed and bowed her head, but she continued to peek at me from under her brows with eyes the color of blueberries. She bit her lip. A young lady was looking at me, of all things, and smiling. I could not fathom it-looking into my eyes! I returned her stare, I don't know where I discovered the courage.
Only a few seconds passed, evidently, though I was sure the moment slipped from the calendar. For the seeming eternity I stood there, my heart pounded only once, a single thunderclap, echoing. This strange girl's clear eyes looked like safe worlds in which to escape the circumstance of what I was.
Chang's heart, too, began to go frantic for this tall blond innkeeper's daughter-I felt it. Was it me the girl was fixing her gaze on, or the twin close at my side?
The whole time, the girl's sister stood in shadow and chewed at her nails. But before long this one was looking up into my face, too, without smiling or frowning. The entire town had gathered behind us, watching everything. And the sisters' large mother leaned forward in her groaning seat and straightened her dress, patted her hair.
"Jefferson," the large woman said to her boy. "Go get your father." Daintily, she removed a little gnat that had flown into her mouth. "Tell him I found a pair of husbands for your sisters."
I swear the townsfolk cheered.

Reprinted from Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss by permission of E. P. Dutton, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Darin Strauss. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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Reading Group Guide


This much is known: Conjoined twins attached at the chest, Chang and Eng Bunker were born in poverty in Siam, were taken abroad and displayed as a human curiosity by an unscrupulous promoter, and with the help of P.T. Barnum, gained control of their professional lives as entertainers. In their early thirties, the two moved to North Carolina, married sister Adelaide and Sarah Yates, and between them, fathered 21 children. On January 17, 1874, first Chang, then Eng Bunker passed away.

From this fertile base of reality, first-time novelist Darin Strauss imagines the lives of Chang and Eng otherwise lost to history and myth. The product of three years of intensive research, Chang and Eng is the story of the two told by Eng on his deathbed as he remembers his life, his conjoined twin lifeless beside him. A story of union in the face of adversity, it follows the extraordinary lives of the twins from poverty to wealth, from hopeless solitude to boundless love, from the court of the King of Siam to the crowded bedroom of their North Carolina home. Grand in scope, vivid in detail, and sublimely moving, Chang and Eng is a story that reveals the longing and humanity of two very different men who exited this world as they entered it—bonded together by common flesh.


Darin Strauss is a graduate of the New York University creative writing program in fiction. His writing has appeared in GQ, Time Out, and literary journals, among other publications.


"This summer's successor to Memoirs of a Geisha."–The Wall Street Journal

"This exquisitely written, heartbreaking, brilliant first novel tells the fictionalized story of real-life conjoined twins Chang and Eng. . . . This is a lush work, sumptuous in detail, with stunning imagery and superb characterization."

Book Magazine

"What a remarkable first novel! Darin Strauss immerses us in the turbulent lives of the historic Siamese twins Chang and Eng with consummate skill, intelligence, and sympathy. Along with Barbara Gowdy's The White Bone, this is one of the most riskily imagined and successfully realized novels I've read in years."

—Joyce Carol Oates

"Chang and Eng rocks with twisted passion, wickedly astute ruminations and a sly and powerful wit. Darin Strauss has crafted a righteously deft and intelligent first novel."

James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential

"No one who reads this beautifully written book will ever be able to think of Chang and Eng again as mere oddities, freaks in Barnum's sideshow. Darin Strauss's powerful and affecting first novel makes the distant and unthinkably strange lives of the original ‘Siamese twins' seem intimately and movingly familiar. It's a marvel of psychological insight and historical imagination."

Tom Perrotta, author of Election

"First-time novelist Darin Strauss has created a true gift with this book. It is not only a miraculously conjured gift to the literary world; it is also a gift to the memories of Chang and Eng themselves. For Strauss is able to do in writing for these famous Siamese twins what nobody could do for them in their lifetime — he separates them. Strauss makes Chang and Eng into two utterly distinct and extraordinary men, never to be blurred into one again."

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Pilgrims and Stern Men

"Chang and Eng is a startling and haunting novel. At first glance, the lives it explores seem so utterly foreign that it is impossible to keep from staring. But gradually that sense of difference dissolves until the story of the Siamese twins becomes a mirror in which we can glimpse our own limitations and longings, our own paradoxical yearnings for separation and connection. Fascinating, heartrending, and entirely convincing, Chang and Eng is a deep look at the humanity we all share."

Jean Hegland, author of Into the Forest

"Darin Strauss has written a daring and bold debut: the perfect mixture of historical research and imagination to unveil the two very separate lives — and the shared life — of Chang and Eng."

Galaxy Craze, author of By the Shore

"This is a brilliant book—an imaginative feat of the first order, and much, much more. Chang and Eng are the bravest, saddest, and strangest heroes in recent American fiction, and this novel is a stunning, heartbreaking, and utterly great debut."

Lev Grossman, author of Warp

"Chang and Eng is a novel as full of mystery and wonder and bravado and verve as the lives that inspired it. Darin Strauss is a young writer of uncommon grit with the even more uncommon imagination of an artist bold enough to embrace history and to wring from it a tale as beguiling and engaging as the celebrated twins themselves. This is a doozy of a read, as full of charm and wit and love as the sky is full of stars."

Lee K. Abbott, Pushcart Award- and O. Henry Award-Winner, author of Wet Places at Noon and co-author of The Putt at the End of the World

"A scrupulously researched and imagined retelling of a psychic and physical drama that riveted large audiences here and worldwide long ago; Darin Strauss' debut achievement makes a present of that storied past and should enthrall a multitude again."

Nicholas Delbanco, author of In the Name of Mercy

"Chang and Eng is a superb, trenchant, witty fictional account of the lives of the original Siamese twins; it works well as history, it works well as an evocation of period and place (from the Far East to mid-nineteenth century America). But it works best as a gut-wrenching and sympathetic account of two men trapped in a bizarre situation of unspeakable irony and cruelty who manage to become husbands and fathers (Strauss manages to write about their sexual adventures with grace and frankness, and the improbable somehow becomes acceptable). This is a wise and wonderful book, the writing is dazzling."

Douglas Glover, author of the Life and Times of Captain N and a winner of the Gold Medal National Magazine award for fiction.


Why did you decide to base your novel on Chang and Eng's life?

I was home sick from work, and watching Oprah Winfrey on TV. She had conjoined twin girls on as her guests. In the middle of their interview, unprompted and as a non-sequitor, the twins jumped up and said at the very same time: "We're a big girl now." That sentence seemed a wonderful mystery to me. I was reading Virginia Woolf's Orlando at the time—a book that has a protagonist who changes gender in the middle of the narrative—and I enjoyed the way Woolf played with language in a way that stretched grammar to make gender a liquid thing. She had sentences in which the character Orlando was a woman at the beginning and a man by the end. Now, I thought a book about Siamese twins could use language similarly, in the function of drawing a self that is neither singular nor plural. "We're a big girl now."

I began to write a novel on conjoined twins that would be invented completely from scratch, but in my research I came across the story of Chang and Eng and changed my mind. I saw a plot line that had these brothers escaping death by the hand of the King of their Siamese homeland, coming to America and celebrity, meeting and marrying American sisters, fathering 21 kids, and getting caught up in The Civil War. I knew I'd never come up with a better yarn than that. I thought it could be the perfect mix of intellectual exploration and good old-fashioned adventure.

Have you always been interested in conjoined twins?

I think everyone is fascinated by such amazing oddities—because of the questions about intimacy and selfhood that their very existence poses – but I was no more interested in such cases than anybody else would have been. But then I saw that Oprah episode (see above), and decided I'd spend a few years with them.

Why write from the perspective you did, (from Eng's point of view), rather than in third person?

Writing from the point of view of one of the twins served a few purposes, at least I hope it did. I wanted to humanize the brothers. A third person account would have, I felt, been more clinical, and also more of what you'd expect. It also would have been much easier, I think. But I wanted to get into the head of one of them, because I think that's a better place to explore each one's individuality. Plus, I think it just makes the thing more sympathetic.

You are writing about real historical people. How much of what is in Chang and Eng was taken from actual events and how much of it is fiction?

As I say in the afterward, the outline of their life is basically lifted from fact. The twins did in fact live between 1811 and 1874. And the brothers did meet the King of Siam, come to America and celebrity, meet Barnum, marry sisters, have 21 children, and sustain a coupled life as farmers in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, during the Civil War period. But the book hopes to be ruled a novel. It is not a history. Most of the people and situations I describe result strictly from the imagination. Where I have changed or discarded or enhanced or invented the ins and outs of Chang and Eng's life, it is only to make the narrative fit the constraints of fiction. Basically, I made it a "better" story, I hope, using the tools available to a novelist.

What resource did you find the most helpful in your research?

A number of books were helpful in my research. The Kingdom of the People of Siam, by John Bowring (Oxford University Press, 1969), An Historical Account of the Siamese Twin Brothers, from Actual Observations, by James W. Hale (Elliot and Palmer, 1831), The Two, by Amy and Irving Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 1978), America in 1857, by Kenneth Stampp (Oxford University Press, 1990), and Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior, by Nancy Segal (Dutton, 1999). I also got a lot of inspiration from going to Wilkesboro, and talking with the town's historian, Joan Baity.

Were you able to contact any of Chang and Eng Bunker's relatives in your research? If so, how did they feel about the book?

While researching the book, I met a great-grandniece of Chang's. She was a lovely Southern woman, and though she's nine-tenths Caucasian, her features have kept a hint of their Asian ancestry. She is very protective of the twins and their reputations, and I did my best not to write anything that would upset her.


  • Chang and Eng were given no say in the decision that resulted in two of them leaving Siam. How would their lives have been different had Abel Coffin never removed them from their homeland?
  • The story of this novel is told in the voice of Eng. How would it have been different if told in the voice of Chang?
  • As children, Chang and Eng saw their mother shaping the action of their lives and their father responding to her direction. Is this reflected in their adult lives with their own marriages and families?
  • Why does the King of Siam act in the manner he does to the twins? In what ways are their circumstances similar?
  • Essentially beginning their lives as slaves or at the very least, prisoners, how incongruous is it that Chang and Eng became slaveholders?
  • In the context of the novel, discuss the actions of P.T. Barnum towards Chang and Eng. What were his motives?
  • In the novel, much is made by some "Americans" regarding the "savage" nature of the Siamese. Given the experiences of the twins, both in their homeland and in America, where, if anywhere, does the "savagery" lie?
  • Ostensibly, Chang and Eng were baptized and became Christians. Did faith, Christian, Buddhist, or otherwise shape the lives of either Chang or Eng?
  • As the Civil War/War Between the States looms, what parallels are drawn between the fractious union of the nation and of Chang and Eng?
  • If Doctor Cottard had been summoned in time, do you suppose he could have saved the life of Eng after the death of Chang, or was Eng's subsequent passing inevitable?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2003

    Chang & Eng , George and Lennie

    Chang and Eng are to the East-coast what George and Lennie were to the West-coast. In this tale of brothers that explores mans' struggles to be accepted, Strauss reveals that the search for the American Dream was universal. Like George and Lennie, Chang and Eng couldn't live together and couldn't live apart. Intolerance is not prejudice towards anyone.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2000

    Too Much Fiction and Too Little Fact

    Darin Strauss has taken liberties, inserting himself into the mind of a 19th century oddity, and he hasn't quite pulled it off. I am not impressed with his rather florid style, but there is no denying that the story of Chang and Eng is fascinating. However Mr.Strauss hasn't done his historical research: Christmas trees were unknown in the US in the 1840s -- they only caught on after Prince Albert brought the traditon to England. At one point the author has an obvious rube quoting 'Alice in Wonderland,' which was not written until after the twins' death. Likewise there are references to electricity (in the 1820's or 30's?), but worse of all is his frequent use of the term 'conjoined twins,' which only recently became the common term for Siamese Twins. This sloppiness devalues the novel and makes me wonder what other anachronisms I missed. I would like to read a biography of Chang and Eng, as there is much extant material on their lives. I like the idea of the novel, but this is poor historical fiction. It just goes to show that if you want to learn about historical subjects, read history.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 31, 2002

    Love, heartache and history...

    A touching and well-written fictionalization of the lives of Chang and Eng, perhaps the most famous Siamese Twins in history. This novel goes artfully back and forth between the early and later stages of the twins's lives, leaving the reader in a constant state of anticipation. The two stories eventually catch up with each other as Strauss takes us to the last days of Chang and Eng. This is an unforgettable story told remarkably well.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 3, 2000


    This is one of the best books I have read in many years. Strauss has a wonderful way with the english language. His words and the story flow at a pleasing tempo. Any historical inaccuracies should be irrelevent to the reader. This is a NOVEL, NOT a research paper. To focus on such details while reading a work such as this, is tantamount to visiting the Grand Canyon, and complaining that 'it looks bigger on TV.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 28, 2000

    overrated and disjointed

    I read this 'novel' to gain more insight about the lives of the original Siamese twins. Although there is a qualifier in the beginning addressing the fictional nature of the book, I expected more of a historical fiction than this book delivered. I found the chapters which alternated between the times to be distracting and disjointed and would have preferred a chronological approach. This book might have well been about any conjoined twins rather than the Bunkers. I think I'll stick to non-fiction titles to gain a better insight into interesting historical characters!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 23, 2000


    Strauss blends superbly a cold detachment reminiscent of Maupassant with the poignant perception of a Chekhov and adds a touch of tragicomic humor. What makes this all so remarkable is not merely Strauss' eye and ear for vital detail. Nor is it his talent for exposing the innards of character in paragraph, a sentence, a phrase. It is Strauss' vision, his uncanny ability to seize the moment and to see beyond it. Strauss' prose is sharp, subtle, compact and alive.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2000

    great job

    This is historical fiction at its best. The author has done meticulous research, and the language is exquisite. The book of the year!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2000

    Chang and Eng

    I was lucky enough to get my hands on a pre-publication copy of Strauss' book, Chang and Eng, and I think it's the best read to come down the pike in a long time. Old-fashioned adventure mixed with the psychological insight of modern literature, the book holds you from first page to last.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2000

    Chang and Eng

    After reading about Chang and Eng being one of the top 7 works of fiction for the summer of 2000 in the Wall Street Journal, I got hold of a copy. I was not disappointed. Chang and Eng is beautifully written historical fiction. The subject matter, the first famous Siamese twins, is fascinating. Strauss' command so early in his career reminded me of Phillip Roth. This book is better than the other books on the Wall Street Journal's List, and better than all of the other books I've read so far this year.

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    Posted March 1, 2010

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    Posted February 2, 2014

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