Book Review: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, H.P. Wood (2016)

June 8th, 2016 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

An Entertaining Coney Island Mystery With a Side of Social Commentary

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racist/sexist/ableist language and sexual harassment.)

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.

(Synopsis via Goodreads.)

Everything about the Cabinet is grimy and fusty and strange. Nazan smiles. It’s everything she’d hoped it would be. It’s perfect.

Along the street comes the clip-clop of distraction. Spencer recognizes the tinkling bells of Children’s Delight—a portable fourseater carousel pulled along by a fine white horse. The Children’s Delight was such a part of his childhood; he and Charlie used to search for it on every family visit to Coney. What a relief that some things never change. And yet. A young girl with pigtails, no more than ten years old, sits atop the cart. It is packed with corpses.

2015 saw the publication of so many wonderful carnival- and circus-themed novels that part of (me the bookish part) was sad to see the year end. There was Kristy Logan’s The Gracekeepers, in which North and her bear cub traverse the sea (which now covers most of the planet) with their circus troupe on the Excalibur. Leslie Parry’s Church of Marvels follows Coney Island sideshow performer Odile Church as she travels to Manhattan in search of her sister, who fled The Church of Marvels when it burned to the ground, taking the sisters’ mother – and their livelihood – with them. In The Book of Speculation, Erika Swyler weaves an imaginative tale about a librarian named Simon who comes into possession of an old book – a circus ledger dating back to the 1700s. Only by unraveling its secrets can he lift the curse that’s plagued his family for generations. And then there’s Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Weight of Feathers, a retelling of Romeo & Juliet featuring two rival families of performers, the Palomas (mermaids) and Corbeaus (tightrope walkers/tree climbers). Last but not least is Rachel Vincent’s Menagerie, an “accidentally vegan” tale that features cryptids, hybrids, and shapeshifters, which quickly became an all-time favorite.

While this year doesn’t seem quite as rife with carnies and “freaks,” I was overjoyed to see early copies of Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Woods and Juliette Fay’s The Tumbling Turner Sisters on NetGalley. I’m also eagerly anticipating the release of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval in early 2017.

Anyway, the point is that I have a soft spot for stories starring circus performers, and H.P. Wood’s Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is a welcome addition to the genre. Of all the books I mentioned, it shares the most in common with Church of Marvels: set in a similar time period (1895), it too features a distraught young woman scouring New York City for a missing loved one in the wake of a personal tragedy.

Set in 1904, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet involves an outbreak of the pneumonic plague, a pack of wayward leopards, a mysteriously vanished Englishwoman, and a corporate and political conspiracy. At the center of it all is Theophilus P. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a dime museum located on the “wrong end” of Coney Island. While the dusty old museum doesn’t see much traffic, the basement bar known as Magruder’s Unusual Tavern serves as a gathering place for Coney Island’s extended family of “freaks” – or Unusuals, as they like to call themselves. (By the same taken, “normal” people are “Dozens” – as in “a dime a.”) When Unusuals and Dozens alike start dropping like flies, Magruder’s becomes the base of operations – and, when the quarantine threatens to rip Coney Island apart, Magruder’s is their last stand.

(The synopsis provided by the publisher does good job of outlining the plot, though I’m surprised that it mentions the plague: for the first third of the book, the weird happenings on Coney Island – hordes of dead rats in the streets, German tourists seizing atop exhibits, a whole herd of dead camels – remains a source of mystery.)

Magruder’s is an exciting mix of mystery, adventure, historical fiction, and social commentary. There’s so much to say on this last point that I’m not quite sure where to start. It’s no surprise that the Unusuals face bigotry: many of them – the “dwarves” of Lilliputia; Bernard the Giant; Count Orloff, the Transparent Man; and Susannah, The Flamingo Girl – were born with disabilities. Others became disabled or disfigured by chance: Zeph lost both legs in a tractor accident (and was subsequently sold to a circus by his mother); Enzo nearly melted half his face off in a fireworks accident; and anarchist Joe lost his left arm making pipe bombs in Chicago.

Still others aren’t disabled, but just plain different. My favorite character is Rosalind, he of “Robert or Roberta?: Half Man, Half Woman, All Freak!” fame. In the parlance of the time, Rosalind is a half-and-half – but he prefers the term “doublesexed.” (In the Author’s Note, Wood says that “While I have never considered the character to be transgender, I’m certain that genderfluid is a term Rosalind would have adored and embraced.”) Sometimes Rosalind likes to wear dresses, while sometimes he prefers trousers. Sometimes he even dons both at once – and not just on stage.

Rosalind’s nontraditional gender presentation is a source of conflict with his boyfriend, Enzo, an Italian immigrant and the island’s resident fireworks Maestro. He eschews public displays of affection, particularly when Rosalind is dressed in a masculine manner, and treats him more like a friend than a lover when they’re not alone. The two have a huge blowup when Rosalind wears a dress and a tux to Bernard’s funeral, calling it “disrespectful.”

Rosalind’s take on gender and sexuality is so wonderfully fluid and progressive, with a live and let live attitude that he applies to himself – and others:

“My parents named me Edward Butler.” He pronounces the name like it’s 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?”

Likewise, in Rosalind we get a taste of the many microaggressions (and outright bigotry) that trans and gender-nonconforming people still face today:

“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?”
“My, we get right to the point, don’t we?” 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.”

Yet many of these characters belong to multiple marginalized groups: Enzo is both scarred and an Italian immigrant who speaks imperfect English; Zeph is missing both legs – and black; Whitey Lovett, fire chief of Lilliputia, is a Jewish “dwarf”; and so on. Wood explicit draws attention to these intersecting identities, both in the text (e.g., Whitey cautions Zeph against joining the anarchist group Black Flag: “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 Fucked. Don’t do it.”) and through a question about intersectionality in the Reading Group Guide.

Some characters aren’t Unusuals per se, but are “others” just the same. Most notably, there’s Nazan Celik, a 21-year-old natural-born American who enters Magruder’s as a patron and ends up an adopted “Unusual” – of sorts. Her family is originally from Constantinople (Istanbul); she complains that her parents are pressuring her to marry, even though they came to America to give her a better life. A self-taught scientist, she’s described as “raven-haired and olive-skinned.”

And of course who could forget about P-Ray, an orphan taken in by Zeph and Magruder’s mad scientist, Timur. He is described variously as white and not; when Kitty and Enzo plot their escape from Hoffman Island, the Teufel family objects vociferously to sharing a boat with Kitty’s “monkey”/”darkie”/insert your racial slur here. However, thanks to Nazan’s astuteness, we know that P-Ray (so named for the only word to cross his lips) is really Turkish, like her. (What he’s really saying is “Pire,” or “flea”; he keeps fleas as pets and runs Magruder’s flea circus.) The differing descriptions and categorizations of P-Ray (and Nazan) speak volumes on the social construction of race.

Wood also escapes the trap of relegating the bigotry to a few bad apples, easily plucked from the barrel and dispatched with. While it is pretty satisfying to see the Teufels abandoned on Hoffman Island, or Gibson devoured by newly liberated big cats, Wood paints racism, sexism, and ableism as not just individual shortcomings, but systemic problems – and ones amplified and painted in stark relief by the plague. In fact, the situation is eerily reminiscent of Hurricane Katrina, as the government leaves its most citizens to fend for themselves.

During the planning stages, the rich and powerful are given enough forewarning to get the heck out of Dodge before the quarantine is instituted. Spencer’s father, Senator William Reynolds and owner of Dreamland, retires to his summer cottage, while the working people of Coney Island are abandoned, without adequate food, medical care, or even a way of contacting their loved ones – some of whom are kidnapped to Hoffman Island for a more stringent initial quarantine. Carnivals, museums, taverns, and brothels are raided – and destroyed.

To add insult to injury, it’s the “freaks,” the sex workers, the immigrants, and the working poor who are blamed for the plague. In an attempt to deflect and minimize, those in power call it the “Calcutta Cough” – because it sounds “foreign.” (“Spanish flu,” anyone?) The prevailing theory, however, is that it arrived on a ship coming from Capetown, South Africa – the same ship Kitty (nicknamed “English” for her accent) and her mother were on. When wondering why anyone showing symptoms would have been allowed to board the ship, Nazan relays how, when her father and uncles came over from Turkey, “the authorities practically took their organs out and washed them.” Meanwhile, Kitty and Jemma weren’t asked a single health-related question.

While the social commentary is my favorite part (as per usual), it wouldn’t be quite so readable without a fast-paced plot, well-developed characters, and an entertaining writing style – and Magruder’s has all three. Wood does a great job of fleshing out her characters and their motivations – which go a long way toward explaining seemingly odd or self-defeating behaviors. While I fell in love with many of Magruder’s regulars, Rosalind and Nazan hold a special place in my heart – along with Robonocchio, the Automatic Boy!. A seemingly sentient automaton, Chio steals all the ladies’ hearts with lovingly rendered portraits – and saves the day when he identifies the killer in their midst.

Definitely give Magruder’s a try if you like: a) historical fiction; b) mysteries involving government conspiracies and cover-ups; c) novels with a hint of social justice; or d) stories about carnies and circus performers.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! Since the story is set on Coney Island circa 1904 and stars a large cast of carnies and circus “freaks,” Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is more diverse than not – and not just in the ways you’d expect.

Among the main characters are:

* Zephaniah “Zeph” Andrews is a young black man in his early 20s. He oversees the day-to-day operations of Theophilus P. Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet – but his real passion is downstairs, in Magruder’s Unusual Tavern, which serves as a safe haven for his extended family of “Unusuals.” (As opposed to “Dozens,” as in dime a dozen – the Unusuals’ derogatory term for “normal” people.) When he was a child, he lost both legs in a tractor accident, after which time his mom sold him to a traveling circus. He walks using his hands, and gets around the Museum using a special cart/train built for him by Doc Timur. At Timur’s suggestion, Zeph started wearing his hair in locks.

* Doc Timur is the brains behind Magruder’s. A mad scientist who spends most of his time holed up in the attic, Timur is a native Uzbeki with a no-nonsense attitude and all sorts of connections.

* Born Edward Butler, Rosalind is, in the parlance of the time, a half-and-half – but he prefers the term “doublesexed.” Rosalind performs at the Captivating Congress of Unusuals under the banner “Robert or Roberta?: Half Man, Half Woman, All Freak!” Rosalind’s “costume” isn’t just relegated to the stage; he often wears some combination of masculine/feminine dress, and occasionally “passes” as a woman, e.g., when conducting surveillance. In the Author’s Note, Wood writes that

The character was inspired by real historical figures like the Chevalier d’Éon de Beaumont, a French spy who switched gender presentations multiple times throughout life until being forced to choose and stick with one by Louis XVI. I was also thinking about Civil War surgeon Dr. Mary Edwards Walker. The first (and so far only) cis-female Congressional Medal of Honor winner, Dr. Walker nonetheless suffered multiple arrests and indignities for her lifelong insistence on dressing “like a man.”

While I have never considered the character to be transgender, I’m certain that genderfluid is a term Rosalind would have adored and embraced.

Rosalind’s lover, Enzo, is a man who’s not entirely comfortable with his partner’s gender presentation. The two have a huge argument when Rosalind shows up to Bernard’s funeral wearing both a dress and a suit. He’s uncomfortable with public displays of affection, and acts more like Rosalind’s friend than boyfriend in front of others. It’s only after he nearly dies on Hoffman Island that Enzo decides he DGAF.

Rosalind is one of my favorite characters, and in her daily struggles, we see the many prejudices faced by gender nonconforming folks, from Rosalind’s dismissive comment that her people and doctors don’t mix so well, to assumptions that her feminine side makes her “weak.”

* Rosalind’s lover Enzo Morrone is the island’s resident fireworks “Maestro.” The left side of his face is horribly scarred – “purple and leathery,” and a little droopy – due to a fireworks mishap. An Italian immigrant, Enzo’s “broken” English raises the ire of bigots as well: “Enzo muses, not for the first time, that her accent sounds like the opening of a door, while his sounds like a door slamming shut.”

Many of the denizens of Magruder’s face discrimination on multiple fronts (Zeph is black and disabled; Enzo is an Italian immigrant and visibly scarred; Nazan is a woman of color and a woman with opinions; etc.), something that’s explicitly acknowledged via a question about intersectionality in the Reading Group Guide.

* P-Ray is a young, mute orphan boy taken in by Zeph and Timur. He is described variously as white and not; when Kitty and Enzo plot their escape from Hoffman Island, the Teufel family objects vociferously to sharing a boat with Kitty’s “monkey”/”darkie”/insert your racial slur here. However, thanks to Nazan’s astuteness, we know that P-Ray (so named for the only word to cross his lips) is really Turkish, like her. (What he’s really saying is “Pire,” or “flea”; he keeps fleas as pets and runs Magruder’s flea circus.)

* Nazan Celik is a 21-year-old natural-born American who entered Magruder’s as a patron and ended up an adopted “Unusual.” Her family is originally from Constantinople (Istanbul); she complains that her parents are pressuring her to marry (Spencer Reynolds, the senator’s son), even though they came to America to give her a better life. A self-taught scientist, she’s described as “raven-haired and olive-skinned.” She and Zeph seem to be on the cusp of romance by story’s end.

* Spencer Reynolds’s younger brother Charlie lost the use of his legs after contracting polio some five years ago. His father, state Senator William Reynolds and owner of Dreamland, told the media that Charlie died, rather than suffer the shame of having an “incapacitated” son.

* Born in London, Katherine “Kitty” Hayworth finds herself stranded on Coney Island after her mother falls sick and disappears. She is pretty much alone in the world: her father passed away a long time ago, and her brother Nathan recently died in a conflict with the Boers while serving in South Africa. They were meant to pick him up on their way to New York; now his body is quarantined on the ship. Kitty’s mom was a professional do-gooder, and the gang at Magruder’s encourage her to use her white and class privilege to help combat the scapegoating of the Coney Island carnies, who are being blamed for the plague, quarantined, and killed.

Some of the secondary characters include:

* Bernard Coyne, an 8′ tall giant whose violent death opens the book.

* Bernard’s date Maggie, a “Dozen” waitress who commits suicide in the street after she contracts the plague (but not before blaming the “freaks” for it).

* Joe, a self-described Anarcho-syndicalist and Black Flag member. He blew off his left arm “making pipe bombs in Chicago,” and also has a jagged, poorly healed scar running down his cheek.

* Whitey Lovett is the fire chief of Lilliputia. A Jewish “dwarf,” he’s known as the biggest ladies’ man on all of Coney Island.

* Yeshi Rinpoche is a Tibetan immigrant who markets herself as a Tibetan priestess. When the plague hits Coney Island, she begins performing traditional Tibetan funerary rituals for the victims. She was formerly known as Yeshi Lowenstein, but only because she didn’t have a surname when she arrived in America – and thus borrowed one from the people head of her in line.

* There’s also Crumbly Pete and Goo-Goo Knox, but they seem to be sociopaths more than anything else.

Mentioned in passing are:

* Count Orloff, otherwise known as the Transparent Man, has see-through skin and suffers from “wasting disease” that makes his limbs “withered and bendy.”

* Susannah, The Flamingo Girl at Steeplechase who has “knees on backward.”

And of course there are the many citizens of Lilliputia, as well as a group of dark-skinned women Kitty meets while camped out at the beach (marketed as “savages” of various sorts to appeal to the racist crowds).

Animal-friendly elements: Not a whole lot. Until Coney Island’s remaining carnies seek refuge at Magruder’s, the nonhuman animal acts are mostly absent; then we see two leopards and and elephant, which help to dispatch of a villain and save a child, respectively. There’s also some talk of killing the exotic animals and serving their meat as a high-priced delicacy once the quarantine takes effect, but the gang at Magruder’s refuses to participate in such a barbaric scheme.

My favorite animal-friendly passage involves a memory of Kitty’s mom, a professional do-gooder from England:

The biggest fight her parents ever had took place on the occasion of their tenth wedding anniversary: Father presented Mother with an elaborate hair clip carved from ivory; Mother refused the gift due to her objections to big-game hunting; Father did not take the news especially well. […]

“I’ve accepted your views on abolition, Jemma!” their father ranted. “And on suffrage and on child labor and on immigrants and even, Lord help me, on teetotalism! But elephants, now? By God, that’s quite enough!” […]

“Don’t you two look so smug,” he muttered to his bemused children over dinner. “You watch. She’ll be declaring herself vegetarian next, and then we’ll all be made to suffer.”

Oh, the horra!


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