Books: The Museum of Extraordinary Things

I chose this book from the “New Books” shelf at the library because I recognized the author. In our book club last year we read Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers, and I was interested in reading another book by her.

With a title like The Museum of Extraordinary Things, I had expected it to be about the sort of museums I have visited, filled with unusual and intriguing objects from natural or human history. The chief attractions of Professor Sardie’s exhibits, however, are not things but people with physical abnormalities.

I tried to explain to my younger son, who had picked up the book in the car and started reading, that in the past, such people were treated like objects or like animals rather than as people. He finds this hard to comprehend, and insists that these people should be treated as special because of their unusual characteristics.

I am thankful that we live in a day when our children are taught to think this way. I have often thought how much more difficult life might be for him if we had lived in an earlier time when the reaction to his odd behaviors as a toddler would probably have been to classify him as defective and unable to participate in normal human society.

It’s not just people who are considered “freaks” who are maltreated, however. The injustice of how factory workers are treated is another prominent theme, as well as how women suffer at the hands of men and have no recourse (even if they are not so poor).

But the novel is not so much about social issues as it is about people. It jumps between the stories of two people: Coralie, who becomes an exhibit in her father’s museum; and Ezekiel, who leaves his father and his Orthodox Jewish way of life to become Eddie.

Naturally there is a romantic angle to this, but it is mostly about two individuals struggling to find/create their own identities. The book explores the ways in which we are shaped by our family backgrounds – and how much this is sometimes as much a matter of perception as reality.

Unlike The Dovekeepers, which I had trouble getting interested in, and then after getting interested I put it down for a while when I wanted a break from reading about sadness and loss, I finished this book in two days. Granted, it is shorter – under 400 pages rather than over 500. And I didn’t know how this book would turn out (whereas there was only one way a book about Masada could end).

The novel covers a period of history I knew little about. At some point in some history class, I’m sure we heard about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and in 8th grade we read The Jungle (which takes place in Chicago, not NYC, but I’m sure many of the issues are similar). But I knew nothing of Coney Island except the name, and I had never heard of the Dreamland Fire.

My mother’s parents grew up in New York City during that period. I know next to nothing about their families or their childhoods (they were both dead before my mother married, and she did not maintain close ties to most of her family). But now I know just a little more about the environment they grew up in.

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