Coney Island Plague

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet: A Novel, by H. P. Wood, (Sourcebooks Landmark), 368 pages, release date 7 June, 2016

Like most readers, I’ve developed a list of very specific genres that are of particular interest to me. Not genres like historical fiction, but genres like historical fiction dealing with religious conflict in Elizabethan England or complicated mysteries with books at their center that also include magical realism. Another of these ultra-specific genres is explorations of class and individual opportunity set on Coney Island near the turn of the 20th Century. The most recent top-notch addition to this genre is H. P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, which I’m putting on my shelves next to Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things and Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels (you can find reviews of these two titles on this blog).

In Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet H. P. Wood creates a world that is distressingly real and simultaneously infused with just a touch of magical realism. Wood’s Coney Island is highly stratified: there are the wealthy business owners, the more established performers and venues, and a highly marginalized community of small-time performers and oddities.

Two new arrivals on the island set this novel in motion: one is Kitty Armstrong, from a wealthy English family, whose mother has disappeared during their first day on the island, and the plague. Yes, that plague. Wood uses the San Francisco plague epidemic of 1900-1904 and the epidemic in Honolulu that occurred during the same period as inspiration. The wealthy see that Coney Island becomes quarantined, abandoning the vulnerable to attempt to live out the epidemic with limited resources and almost no health care.

Kitty is befriended by a con man, who leads her to Magruder’s where she becomes part of an eclectic community: the legless African American man who runs Magruder’s, the youngster who won’t speak a word aside from his own unusual name and who has an obsessive fondness for fleas and flea circuses, an eccentric experimental scientist, a robot boy who is also an artist, a character who is half male half female divided neatly down the middle, the heir of a senator who is a major Coney Island business owner—the list goes on and on. Wood does an admirable job of bringing these characters together and gradually building relationships among them that are both affectionate and volatile. This isn’t a cast of gutter angels, rather it’s a group of gutter and high society individuals, most of whom are both a bit angel and a bit devil.

I’d recommend starting Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet on a Friday evening. You’ll need to have Saturday and Sunday free because once you begin reading, you won’t want to put this book down.

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