In New York City, in the spring of 1911, something happened which appalled and enraged the average citizen and began to turn the tide in the struggle for worker’s rights. This was the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 146 young women and men, locked into their workplace so they could not take breaks, perished. Most jumped to their deaths from the ninth floor to avoid dying in the flames.
Coney Island, freak shows and The Dreamland Amusement Park, were places where average Brooklyn citizens found their entertainment and escape at the tumultuous turn of the 20th century. It was a macabre and painful existence for the “wonders” who provided that entertainment, sadly deformed and exotic people and animals, who were on display to provide thrills and chills to the insatiable public.
New York native, and prolific author, Alice Hoffman, has written a wonder of a book about her home town in 1911, framed by two monumental and tragic fires and exploring the life of a young woman who was raised to perform in the Museum of Extraordinary Things, a typical “freak” show of the period, as a mermaid. She is exploited cruelly by the owner, her own father, but she finds special friends who give her the opportunity to learn about the world beyond her tank.
Part mystery, part love story, part documentary, and completely magical, Hoffman manages to create a fictional context to explore the history of photography, the labor movement, Coney Island, Orthodox Jewish life in the tenements, the exploitation of factory workers and the first wild animals made to perform for the public in amusement parks. Threading through the grim tale of the underbelly of turn-of-the-century, untamed New York and Brooklyn, its gangsters, criminals, corrupt police, and immoral factory owners, is a deep, enduring story of unlikely friendships and of love, between parent and child, and between young lovers trying to find their true selves, seeking to break free from the confinement and cruelty in which they find themselves enmeshed.
Hoffman has become an ardent and gifted storyteller, and with this subject matter, so close to her own history (both her grandfathers were immigrant factory workers turned labor radicals), she shines. Don’t miss The Museum of Extraordinary Things. (The one she wrote before this was amazing too: The Dovekeepers.)