Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet

Title:  Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet
Author:  H. P. Wood
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks Landmark. 2016. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1492631485 / 978-1492631484

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "At last, the giant reaches Hell Gate."

Favorite Quote:  "Not one of us knows what we can do, until one fine day, we stand up and do it."

Think Coney Island, New York, and you think of the ocean, the boardwalk, the games, the rides, and the shows. Even today, Coney Island is the home to a long-running circus sideshow with sword swallowers, fire eaters, and a new group of artists born different, who celebrate their talents.

This same environment existed on Coney Island in the early 1900s - a melee of shows, scam artists, and playgrounds for the rich and famous. Dreamland was an actual theme park founded by William Reynolds, a former state senator. In the book Dreamland is a dream only for the rich. The fictional Magruder's is at the other end of the spectrum, a small curious museum that does not encourage visitors but serves as a gathering place for the characters who call Coney Island home.

Now superimpose on this festive, carnival environment the divide between the rich and the poor and the gap between the establishment and those who seem to exist on its fringes. Add a layer of intrigue amongst those looking to do the right thing versus those looking simply to further their own cause. Now superimpose on that an outbreak of the plague brought in on an immigrant ship. Put all that together with some very colorful characters, and you have this book.

The plot of the story goes that a young woman is left stranded on Coney Island. She is new to the country. Her brother has died, and her mother disappears. She needs help. Circumstance leads her to Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet. Here, she finds help. Soon, the situation grows more and more dire for her mother's disappearance becomes tied to a much larger intrigue. The onset of the plague threatens Magruder's. The authorities threaten Magruder's, and others would see it destroyed for their reasons. Even in the middle of the devastation, though, new relationships blossom. Friendships and even love are born.

Even with the rich setting and dire plot, it is truly the characters who are the heart of the book. The characters divide into two camps - the Unusuals and the Dozens. The Unusuals are the carnival people, the ones who are the sideshows of Coney Island. Zeph is the legless man with dreadlocks. Dr. Timur is the mysterious (mad?) scientist with the ability to build amazing contraptions. P-Ray is the Turkish boy who keeps fleas as pets and who will not speak. The Dozens are the rest, so referred to because they are "a dime a dozen." Kitty is the young woman who has lost her mother. Spencer Reynolds is one of the Coney Island elite, but he chooses a different path.

The book at times reads almost like a fairy tale, but it is definitely not a book for children. It deals with serious, adult issues, but the whimsy of a carnival setting and a mad scientist keep the seriousness from settling into depression. Even against the dark background of the plague, the book has moments of joy and humor and moments which are a pure flight of fancy.

Ultimately, this is a book about acceptance. The physical descriptions of Unusuals depict the stereotypes associated with circus sideshows. However, the characters are developed to delve behind the stereotypes and reveal that underneath the surface, we are all the same. We love. We hope. We care. We suffer. We rejoice. We sacrifice. The characters make this a memorable story about about friendship and community because "here on Coney Island, we learn to take each other as we are."

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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