Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Mini book review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

The Museum of Extraordinary Things, by Alice Hoffman, is historical fiction taking place in New York City in the early 1900s.  It is told from a couple points of view: Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant making his living as a photographer in Brooklyn; and Coralie Sardie, who performs as the Mermaid in her father's "museum" / freak show, which competes with the other, larger attractions in Coney Island.  When Eddie, a witness to the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, is hired to find out what happened to a lost young woman who had escaped the fire, his life becomes intertwined with Coralie's, as she tries to extricate from her father's clutches.

I actually found the romance between Coralie and Eddie to be the least interesting part of this book, instead finding the details of the two terrible fires - the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and the Dreamland Fire - much more compelling.  I had never heard of either of these two disasters before this book.  The Triangle fire was particularly sad, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City, in which 146 immigrant garment workers died, either burned to death, because their bosses locked them in the work rooms, or killed when they jumped from the building's eighth, ninth and tenth floors to escape the flames.  The Dreamland fire happened just months later, when exploding light bulbs at the amusement park ignited tar that was being used to patch a roof leak.  Over sixty exhibition animals died and the once-elegant park was destroyed, never to be rebuilt.

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