The Museum of Extaordinary Things: A Novel, by Alice Hoffman, is filled with symbolism and analogies that she has filled the pages with.
For instance, the character Eddie steals a watch from the young son of a wealthy family who owns the factory he works in. The boys were both adolescents. He carries the watch everywhere, and perceives it almost as if it was a good luck charm. As the years move forward and he matures into a successful photographer, the watch proves to be a burden, an oppressor in his life.
Coralie is a young girl, the child of a self-proclaimed professor, who owns a museum, the Museum of Extraordinary Things. She was born with webbed-fingers, and her father never lets her forget she is less than worthy. She is more or less imprisoned in her house on Coney Island. She is eventually forced by her father to swim in the Hudson River at night, so others might perceive her to be a monster. He uses her to impersonate a mermaid, in order to entice customers.
Coralie does become more self-confident, and realizes her father for what he is. He is a rigid and commanding person, and his “museum” is of utmost importance to him, more so than her importance is in his life. She becomes aware of his mistreatment of the individuals in his employment.
Her father runs the gamut of searching for those who were born with severe birth defects. He is constantly looking in morgues, the Bowery, and anywhere that he feels “freaks of nature” (man, woman, child, animal), dead or alive can be found. He is a con artist, a scam maker, and uses others for his own purpose.
He views each individual he uses in his museum as being less human. Yet, within the realm of those individuals are those who are astute and extremely intelligent. They are more or less forced into working in a side show of sorts, due to their appearance. Nobody else would have them. Coney Island was a home for the unfortunate with birth defects, and people flocked there to see them.
Coney Island is described with minute detail. Hoffman is excellent in that respect, especially in showing daily life for those who struggle to survive. From the Jewish immigrants to the gangsters and mob bosses, the corrupt police and the fire department, the stories are all there, before the reader’s eyes. The history has been written about before, several times over, but she has weaved it into a tapestry of historical fiction that should appeal to many.
From the tragic Triangle Fire to the Dreamland Fire, and more, events are illuminated through individuals and their daily lives. How tragedy affects them is well-defined. Tragedy can encompass more than a horrific event, and can be imposed by crass, unforgiving and uncaring individuals. It was an explosive time, a “dog eat dog” world of survival. The monsters of evil in life are not necessarily the “freaks of nature” within the pages of the novel. The reader is cognizant that human beings who show no compassion or humanity are often the misfits of life, the monsters.
The novel is cleverly written. I found the historical aspect fascinating, even though I knew much of it beforehand. Some historical events are filled in with creative license, yet the major facts were retained. I liked the comparison of the “freaks of nature” with those who were born without birth defects. The reader’s senses are filled to overflowing with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of Coney Island.
The Museum of Extraordinary Things is metaphor for life and assimilation in Brooklyn, and for the magical perceptions of Coney Island and Dreamland. Alice Hoffman is excellent with her word-imagery and details, leaving nothing unturned. There is a lot of symbolism within the pages detailing birth, life, and rebirth, burdens, and dependence. The horrors are on display constantly, and the horrors are not always the “misfits of life”.
Coney Island, itself was the museum of the ordinary and extraordinary individuals who inhabited it in the early 20th century.