Set in Coney Island (New York) in 1904, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet has elements of historical fiction, science fiction/fantasy, and mystery all rolled into one. This book is definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but I found it to be delightfully peculiar.
Author: H.P. Wood
Genre: Historical Fiction
Version: Paperback (368 pages)
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
May 1904. Coney Island’s newest amusement park, Dreamland, has just opened. Its many spectacles are expected to attract crowds by the thousands, paying back investors many times over.
Kitty Hayward and her mother arrive by steamer from South Africa. When Kitty’s mother takes ill, the hotel doctor sends Kitty to Manhattan to fetch some special medicine. But when she returns, Kitty’s mother has vanished. The desk clerk tells Kitty she is at the wrong hotel. The doctor says he’s never seen her although, she notices, he is unable to look her in the eye.
Alone in a strange country, Kitty meets the denizens of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet. A relic of a darker, dirtier era, Magruder’s is home to a forlorn flea circus, a handful of disgruntled Unusuals, and a mad Uzbek scientist. Magruder’s Unusuals take Kitty under their wing and resolve to find out what happened to her mother.
But as a plague spreads, Coney Island is placed under quarantine. The gang at Magruder’s finds that a missing mother is the least of their problems, as the once-glamorous resort town is abandoned to the freaks, anarchists, and madmen.
** Not a Children’s or YA book **
I knew when I saw that cover of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, that I had to read it. I don’t know about you, but I am a big time sucker for any book that involves a circus. There is just something so magical and alluring about a circus… Confession: I didn’t even read the synopsis prior to requesting a review copy of this book. I have no shame.
When the book arrived (and I finally read the synopsis) I realized that this book was not about a traveling circus, but rather about an amusement park located in Coney Island. This really intrigued me, especially since it is set in 1904. I was not disappointed…
Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet takes us on a wild ride into the lives of the “Unusuals.” What are Unusuals you may wonder? The Unusuals are the people of Coney Island who have some type of “oddity’ about them. The characters in this book are what make this book so compelling. Let me introduce you to a few…
- Zeph, curator of Maguder’s Curiosity Cabinet, is a dread-locked man of color that lost his legs in a tractor accident. Zeph doesn’t let being a double amputee slow him down though, he just has to do things a little differently. Zeph is really the glue that holds everyone together.
- Timur, the boss, speaks with a thick accent from his home country of Uzbekistan. Timur is your average mad scientist that lives and works upstairs. Just don’t piss him off or you will find yourself staring down the barrel of a gun.
- P-Roy, the mute orphan boy that hails from Turkey. P-Roy likes to collect pets….pets that happen to be fleas.
- Archie, the neighborhood con-artist who everyone loves to hate.
- Enzo, the local Italian with a face covered in scars.
- Whitey, the Jewish dwarf and fire chief.
- Rosalind, the “half man, half woman,” who was born a man, but doesn’t want to label himself (author refers to him with male pronouns throughout the book) as a man or a woman.
In addition to the Unusuals, we also have a few “Normals” thrown in as well…
- Kitty, the proper British lady who will stop at nothing to find her mother.
- Spencer, the privileged young man who comes from high society.
- Nazan, the highly educated Turkish woman who refuses to comply to her parents wishes to marry.
The motley crew of characters in this book are probably the most diverse groups of characters that I have ever encountered. There were characters of various colors, religions, sexual orientations, social classes, and disabilities. Even though they are different from one another, they share a bond over the fact that they all do not fit into the mold of societal norms. They not only are friends and co-workers, they were a family.
The character that stood out most, in my opinion, was Rosalind of course. This was the first time I had ever encountered a character who was gender fluid (per the author in the author’s notes). I thought Wood did a wonderful job with Rosalind’s character.
Rosalind grins. ‘As a matter of biology, I am most tediously male. Lots of people assume my male half is the act–that I’m a woman dressing as a man. I suppose it obliterates their peace of mind to contemplate the alternative. But there’s no denying.’ ‘Do you wish you were female?’ He considers the question. ‘You know, I don’t think anyone ever asked me what I want before. And the answer….is no. No, I don’t. Which is not to say I’m particularly attached to being male. My parents named me Edward Butler.’ He pronounces the name like its a synonym for vomit. ‘I took the name Rosalind because I like it better. Some days, I wear dresses because I like them; sometimes I wear trousers because I like those too. Frankly, I don’t know why it all has to be so complicated. Actually, that’s not true. Of course I know why; I’ve just chosen not to care very much. Isn’t our little earth grim enough without denying ourselves the perfect lipstick? It’s not so much that I wish to be female–what I wish is that they’d stop insisting I choose.’
This, for me, was one of the most powerful parts of dialogue included in this book. I can’t speak for the accuracy of the depiction of someone who identifies as gender fluid, but it really made me think about how much society pressures us to identify as either a male or female, and how it is so hard for society to accept those who identify with both.
The plot of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet centers around a deadly plague that has hit Coney Island and the pandemonium that ensues. I found the plot to be both engaging and quick paced. When I read the synopsis, I really wasn’t sure how it was going to work, but it just does. There are a few graphic scenes in this book, for example a depiction of a Tibetan Sky Burial… which apparently is a real thing. If you are squeamish, don’t look into it…. I also adored that this book tackles such hard topics such as racism, intolerance, and classism. I must admit, I wasn’t expecting this book to go into these subject matters, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is not without its shortcomings. As far as the plot goes, this is one of those books that has many subplots along side of the main plotline. There was a lot going on, almost too much at times, especially towards the end. It felt like a whirlwind of one bad thing after another. I think if the plot had been “thinned out” a little, it would have flowed a little better and not felt so chaotic. Furthermore, I thought it was a little odd that no one the Magruder’s crew seemed particularly fearful of becoming ill, even going as far as NOT taking standard precautions to protect themselves…like gloves, covering their mouths, not coming into contact with an effected person, etc. etc. I think it would have been a little more realistic if these fears and precautions had been included.
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Like previously stated, this book is not going to be for everyone… To be completely honest, this book is very strange. If you aren’t one for peculiarities and quirkiness, this probably isn’t going to be the book for you.
“Not one of us knows what we can do, until one fine day, we stand up and do it.”
“…here on Coney Island, we learn to take each other as we are.”
“Good. Unusuals can’t afford to be anarchists, Zeph. Look at me – I’m a dwarf and a Jew. You’re a Negro and legless. Add ‘anarchist’ and you’ve got the Trifecta of F***ed. Don’t do it.”
“Sad fact is, it doesn’t take much to amuse most people. But this is what you need to understand: any good confidence game is built on two pillars – what people want and what they fear.”
“Look at me.” Rosalind speaks very quietly. “Look at the way I choose to live. Ask yourself just how tough a person has to be to live like this.”
“Yes, here. Anywhere. Everywhere.”
“Just a typical few days at Magruder’s,” Rosaline says. “Plague, death, imminent doom.”
“Excellent.” Zeph grins.
“They are practical, and practical is beautiful.”