'The Museum of Extraordinary Things': acceptance and love in unlikely context

Alice Hoffman's message of self-acceptance transcends its early 20th-century setting at a sideshow.

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The 1932 horror film "Freaks" tells a tragic tale of love and betrayal but is mostly remembered for its cast of real "sideshow freaks." They included Elvira and Jenny Lee Snow, the Pinheads; Elizabeth Green, the Bird Girl; and Josephine Joseph, Half Woman-Half Man.

The film was poorly received by audiences who had apparently lost the desire to watch humans with bizarre or overwhelming physical abnormalities as entertainment. Strange, considering that just a few decades prior, the live sideshow was a thriving arena of popular culture.

By Alice Hoffman
Scribner ($27.99)

Alice Hoffman's "The Museum of Extraordinary Things" is set at the apex of the sideshow as American entertainment, New York City in 1911. Ms. Hoffman's novel takes place primarily at The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a sideshow angling to be an upscale alternative to the bright lights of Coney Island's Dreamland.

Here we meet Coralie Sardie, the daughter of the museum's mastermind and, as she matures, a star attraction. Raised as a captive in the house of curiosities, Coralie has limited interaction with the outside world.

What she lacks in practical maturity, she makes up for with a tremendous acceptance of human diversity having grown up surrounded by the oddest ends of society. It is her acceptance of all creatures that causes her to largely excuse the manipulative, abusive and cruel actions of her father.

When his sinister plans move beyond the doors of the museum, Coralie begins to break away from his oppressive power. Across the East River, Ms. Hoffman knits another storyline in Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Eddie Cohen, a young photographer, grew up assisting his father in New York City's garment factories. Eddie and his father emigrated from Ukraine hoping to find a better life in the United States, free from the anti-Semitism of their home country.

As Eddie grows up, he rebels against his father's Orthodox faith and runs away, finding shelter and a new career with a photographer in Chelsea. Fans of the fact and fiction of early 20th-century New York City will appreciate Ms. Hoffman's depiction of Lower East Side life, the sparkling appeal of Coney Island and the beginnings of tabloid journalism.

A New Yorker herself, Ms. Hoffman has captured the tone of the era -- excitement for the modern age mixed with fear of rampant urban and industrial development. Ms. Hoffman weaves her characters into major events such as the fires at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and Dreamland, providing the reader with a history lesson complementary to her otherwise imagined world.

The novel switches from the individual points of view of Coralie and Eddie to third-person narration with almost every chapter. In striving to provide the reader with a comprehensive picture of the action, Ms. Hoffman more often creates redundancies that slow it down. And although the East River runs between the two major characters, their storylines are connected through a simplified and rather unbelievable sequence of events.

Amid the history and drama, themes of love and acceptance make the novel important in a time where stories about bullying and general intolerance seem to make the news daily. Ms. Hoffman's most physically afflicted characters, like the genteel Wolfman Mr. Morris, express the greatest sense of self while characters without these ailments (Coralie's father) seem to lack the basic qualities of humanity.

Ms. Hoffman's message of self-acceptance transcends its early 20th-century setting and appeals to readers of all shapes, sizes and sorts. 

Elliott Mower is the assistant director of external affairs at Pittsburgh Public Theater.

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