“The Museum of Extraordinary Things” by author, Alice Hoffman, is truly an extraordinary book. Beautifully written, it evokes a time and place long gone from our memories but containing emotions and behaviors that are as common as ever.
It is 1911 and behind the doors of the pretty little house on Surf Ave. in Coney Island lays a museum full of wondrous and magical oddities. There a little girl named Coralie, born with webbed fingers, lives with her impresario Father and caretaker of the museum.
As a child, Coralie loves her home and feels, because of her special deformity, that it is the perfect place for her. There among the other oddities like the “Wolf Man”, the “Butterfly girl” and the “Fat Lady”, she has found a place where her differences are not only disregarded but looked upon as beautiful and a definite advantage by her always scheming Father.
An accomplished swimmer, partly due to her webbed fingers, as Coralie gets older she, herself, becomes another display in the museum as the “Human Mermaid”. It is not until the rival “Dreamland” is about to open, with their larger than life amusement rides, animal acts and own freak-shows, that she comes to discover the cruelty of “normal” people and the truth about her Father who must come up with a bigger and better attraction to keep the museum open, no matter what lengths he must go to.
Enter Eddie, born in a small Russian village and forced out by the Cossacks after the murder of his Mother and the destruction of his home, he and his Father must find a life for themselves in the slums of the “Lower East Side” of Manhattan during a period in history where sweat shops were the norm and life was less than cheap.
Abandoning his religious roots and his past life, he becomes a finder of lost things and after a terrible tragedy is asked to search for a missing girl whose remains were never found.
Between two of the most tragic events in the history of New York City, “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire” and the “Dreamland” fire in Coney Island, these two young people will meet, fall in love, and come to terms with the truths in their lives that neither had known before.
A fascinating historical novel, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things” seamlessly weaves together fact and fiction into a story both believable and heart-warming.
From freak-shows that survived on exploitation to tenements teaming with the poor and disenfranchised on up to the luxurious homes of Central Park West and the high-society owners of sweat shops where the death of their own workers was of no consequence, Alice Hoffman has written a story lush in detail and full of life.
As a native New Yorker who grew up among those Lower East Side tenements until we moved to Brooklyn and became frequent Coney Island visitors, the book brought me home. It showed me the stories that my city was built upon and made those places even more special.
For those who have only read about such places or seen pictures, the novel will transport you to another time and another place, where freaks act more like normal people should and the, so-called “normal people” are cruel reflections of our inner-most fears.
An astonishing book, well written, immaculately researched and told in such a way that the reader, when finished, will know they have met extraordinary people, learned about extraordinary times, and read a truly extraordinary novel.