The Museum of Extraordinary Things

The Museum of Extraordinary Things - Alice Hoffman In 1922 Coney Island was in the beginning stages of the tourist attraction it became. New York still had woods in which to roam and hunt. People could still swim in the Hudson River and fish along its banks. Coralie Sardie swims it all the time, even when ice begins to form on the surface. She feels more alive in the water because you see Coralie is a mermaid. Or, at least she pretends to be a mermaid swimming in a tank at her father’s “Museum of Extraordinary Things”. Professor Sardie collects unusual specimens of all types and when his daughter turned out to have webbed fingers, well, how could he not make her the star attraction of his show? Coralie grows up surrounded by “wonders” – the paying public referred to them as freaks. As she nears adulthood Coralie can’t help but question whether she is the wonder her father promotes publicly or the freak instructed to wear white gloves at all times to hide her deformity.

The professor’s housekeeper and Coralie’s surrogate mother Maureen, herself scarred by both life and an encounter with acid is the one person Coralie can count on for unconditional love.

Happenstance brings Coralie into the woods one evening where she spies Ezekial (Eddie) Cohen sitting by a campfire sharing dinner with his dog. Ezekial, who feels like an outsider among his family and friends, is desparately trying to escape his recent past and even more desparately, his distant past. But how can he ever escape the boyhood memory of his home, with his mother inside, being burned to the ground? He finds his solace in photography, for some reason, specifically crime scenes. He photographs not only the victims but takes the “mug shots” of the criminals as well. But Ezekial has something extraordinary to hide as well. He has the uncanny ability to find things … and people.

The tale of these three characters, two defined by fire and one by water, would have made an interesting book in itself but Ms. Hoffman does not stop there. She bookends their story with the tale of two New York tragedies: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and the Dreamland fire. She expertly weaves the lives of her characters in and out and around these historical events.

One reviewer described this book as “ a wonderful mix of magic vs. science, of history and tragedy, and of love and romance”. I couldn’t agree more.