The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: A Visual Biography of Spellbinding Proportion

Fleming, Ann Marie. The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. New York: Penguin, 2007.
“Distances and differences keep us apart, and we forget to remind each other of our own stories.” - Long Tack Sam 158
In her novel charting her great-grandfather’s success as a magician and businessman, Ann Marie Fleming breaks the normal conventions of biography-writing. Often biographies can seem like scientific textbooks which dissect facts about a person’s life into microscopic bits that suffer incredulous scrutiny. The alternative to that scientific method involves a creative model which uses a person’s life as a theme, but isn’t necessarily grounded in fact. Fleming’s novel is indeed a biography about her grandfather, but the norm is broken because the book is also about her journey finding the identity of her grandfather. While many factual elements are present and substantiated by the visual aspect of her novel, she tells the story of her journey with stunning imagery, creatively embellished versions of her grandfathers story, and a quirky humor which is present in all of her body of work.

AMF's avatar "stick girl"
The author is the narrator of the novel, personified by “stick girl” (a wacky representation of the author’s alter-ego) who offers commentary on the various pictures and interviews found in the novel. As Fleming journeys around the world interviewing folks who knew her grandfather, she begins to piece together a story about his life. But the snapshots provided in the novel directly parallel the way Long Tack Sam’s story appears to her—in snapshots. The people she interviews provide specific stories and brochures, posters, and pictures featuring Long Tack Sam. However, they do not provide a cohesive whole of Long Tack Sam’s life because the various stories have conflicting elements.

Fleming has capitalized on the ability to reveal plot inconsistencies in a graphic novel form. When one person would
story told in comic
tell her a story about her grandfather, she will present that information in a little comic buried in the novel. Although these comics begin the same, they change based on new evidence provided by interviews and the discovery of new pictures. Through the entire novel, one must maintain a critical eye concerning the TRUE story of Long Tack Sam because of the various interpretations of his life. Yet Fleming has tapped into the essence of her grandfather because one gets the impression that the mysteriousness of his story is consistent with the mysteriousness of his life.

This novel maintains all of the elements essential in a biography: factual information provided by people, pictures, etc. and a critique of the subject’s life. Yet Fleming’s ability to present this life in a creative visual form combined with the narrative of her own journey to discover the identity of her grandfather make this novel a truly unique experience. The reader cannot resist being pulled in by her humorous charm, her quick-paced style of storytelling, and her critical eye concerning the true identity of her grandfather. This novel will be an exciting experience for those who love biographies as well as those whose preference is for fiction. Fleming’s enigmatic storytelling will pull you away from your own preconceptions of a biography as you explore the life of Long Tack Sam and Fleming’s journey finding the true identity of her grandfather.

Recommendations for Teachers
Ann Marie Fleming, AMF, as she calls herself throughout the book, has written not only an incredibly interesting biographical narrative, but a very teachable one as well. Both the graphic novel and the film get at the heart of what history really is: stories. The story of Long Tack Sam is stitched together through a collage of images, old routine uniforms, playbills, oral histories, writings, and more. The emphasis is not placed on "truth" as much as interpretation. The perpetual search for truth is not as important as simply enjoying each new iteration of her grandfather's story and thinking critically about what "seems" most plausible. This form of critical thinking expands a student's view of the world and teaches the reader that life, history, relationships, family and right and wrong are not black and white. Perspective matters a great deal.

sample page
Also, the book could serve to inspire students to think and write about their own personal histories or the histories of their relatives. The book could work well in a unit about identity; specifically speaking to how identity is built by both internal thoughts and personal actions as well as through the perceptions people have of us. It could serve to get students thinking about how their decisions are affected by the decisions of those around them (i.e. family, significant others, and friends). Good decision making is not innate and a book like this could help teach valuable lessons in what good decision making looks like by making the student aware of what affects their decisions, both positively and negatively.

Furthermore, the language and format, the fact that it is a graphic novel, is very accessible. Struggling or reluctant readers could very easily get into this book and before they even know they are reading, they'll be done and will have learned something. This accessibility and quickness can also benefit the teach as the school year is short; long, complicated texts, in a lot of cases, fail to engage students and become forced and unpleasant. For instance, any book that highlights race relations, but is too dense, could be coupled or replaced by Long's story of never truly fitting in anywhere as he is Chinese and his wife is Austrian. Though they both experience racism and class-ism throughout their lives they, for a short time, somewhat ironically disown their mixed-blood children because they inter-racially marry.

timeline embedded in page
Lastly, this text would work rather interestingly in a world history course. The timeline of Long Tack Sam and his family's story walks the reader through very important historical events: the rise of communism in China, the Japanese war with China, World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, the bombs in Japan, the sinking of the Titanic, and the rise and fall of vaudeville, acrobatics and magic in the Occident as well as the far East, mostly at the hands of the film and television industry, just to name a few. Throughout the entire text, in the margins, is a timeline giving important world events and pop-culture snippets that inform Long's narrative. The book really brings history to life.

For all these reasons and more The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam is filled with dozens of teachable moments, and when used appropriately, you won't be able to stop all the great conversations this book will spur amongst your students.

About Ann Marie Fleming
"Hi. My name is Ann Marie Fleming. I've got a very interesting story to tell you about my great-grandfather. But first I have to tell you about myself. Bear with me." -opening to Long Tack Sam

Ann Marie Fleming is known primarily as an independent filmmaker. Her film work spans several genres of film, including shorts, series, feature length and even karaoke film. Fleming is known for creatively blending various techniques, such as animation, documentary, experimental, and dramatic. While Fleming uses a range of techniques, her body of work consistently touches on the themes of family, history and memory. All of these themes converge in The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, which was first released as a movie in 2003.

Fleming wrote, directed, researched and animated the film version of Long Tack Sam. She spent six years researching her family history through interviews with relatives, acrobats and historians to uncover the life of her great-grandfather, Long Tack Sam. The film was released in 2003, and Fleming spent the next few years adapting the film into a graphic novel.

Fleming brought her film techniques to writing with The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam. The film combines documentary with drama, just as the book combines the storytelling forms of both biography and novel. In both book and film, photographs and posters are combined with animation drawn by Fleming. As in other films she has created, Fleming uses “stickgirl” as a representation of herself in both film and novel. Fleming’s background in the visual arts is evident in her choice to write through graphic novel. The book Long Tack Sam creatively uses visuals to tell the narrative.

Fleming’s work is often an exploration of her own race, identity and connection to her family past. Fleming shares several connections to her great grandfather. Sam married an Austrian woman, leading to Fleming’s mix of Chinese and Austrian parentage. Just as Long Tack Sam’s life revealed a larger story of race relations in the twentieth century, Fleming’s research originally centered on how race may be why Long Tack Sam has left public memory, despite being a world-renown performer in his lifetime. Like her great-grandfather, Fleming is also a global traveler. She was born in Okinawa, south of Japan, but her work has taken her all over the world. Researching Long Tack Sam alone brought her from Vancouver to Illinois, from Illinois to Australia, from Australia to Shanghai. Fleming currently lives and works in Canada. Fleming started the production company, Sleepy Dog Films, and you can follow her current projects on their website.

"I started to see what I had in common with my great-grandfather...a legacy, so to speak...I'm a film maker and an animator. The first films were animated--collaborations between magicians and photographers. I've travelled all over the world trying to make my work and tell his story. And it's nice to see how we both are connected. How we ALL are connected." - Long Tack Sam 160-161

Multimedia (Video or Audio)

A clip from The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2003).
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Additional Resources:

-Dan Slane, Mike Coon, Katelyn Wood, Brett Blohm and Sara Kiel (see also Adam Rapp's Punkzilla and Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game)