Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is set in the freak show section of 1904 Coney Island. It’s filled with a cast of fantastical characters that are well-fleshed out. The story combines some historical facts and many of the characters are based on real people who once made their livings as freaks and oddities in sideshows and carnivals in the early 20th century.
We have the Unusuals:
- Zeph a legless black man that fronts Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a museum of unique and wonderful objects.
- There’s the mad scientist and inventor of the museum, Doc Timur, who lives in the attic.
- Rosalind, the half-and-half that lives in the apartment upstairs.
- P-Ray the mute Turkish boy, who runs errands for Zeph and cares for a flea circus in the museum.
- There’s Archie, the con man, who is always scheming to make a buck.
- Plus a whole slew of lesser characters that inhabit the freakshows and carnivals along the boardwalk.
Then we have the Dozens (as in a dime a dozen):
- Kitty, the British girl searching for her mother.
- Nazan the Turkish high society girl who is truly fascinated by Magruder’s.
- Spencer the rich boy, slumming it in the freakshows.
The story begins with Kitty, lost and penniless, wandering around Coney Island. She finds a bench facing the ocean and sits there all day and night. The con man extraordinaire, Archie sees her and begins a con game using her to con an art gallery out of a big payday. This is how Kitty becomes intertwined with the Unusuals at Magruders.
As a plague begins to cause mysterious disappearances, and deaths, the dozens determine, through bigotry and fear that the unusuals are the cause of this illness. The island is put under quarantine and no one can come in or out.
The Unusuals come together to help Kitty solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. As the story unfolds, we see how many times it’s the ones that appear unusual on the outside that seem to have the most humanity, while the ones that appear “normal”, can be monstrous.
It’s a story about stereotypes, racism, classism and how those who don’t appear to belong together, really do. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll fall in love with many of these great characters, and learn to hate a few too.
Overall, I really liked this book. It does fall into one of my fascinations, “freaks” and “carnies”, so this didn’t surprise me too much. What I enjoyed the most though, is that many of the freaks are based loosely on real-life people who made their livings in sideshows and carnivals as freaks and oddities.
Title: Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet
Author: by H.P. Wood
Publisher: SOURCEBOOKS Landmark
Genre: General Fiction (Adult)
After Kitty Hayward’s mother vanishes from their Coney Island hotel in 1904, Kitty finds herself alone, hungry, penniless, and far away from her native England. The last people she’d expect to help her are the cast of characters at Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a museum of oddities that is home to a handful of freaks. But even the unusual inhabitants of Magruder’s may not be a match for the insidious sickness that is plaguing Coney Island…
About the Author
H.P. Wood is the granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes. She has written or edited works on an array topics, including the history of the Internet, the future of human rights, and the total awesomeness of playing with sticks. She lives in Connecticut with a charming and patient husband, a daughter from whom she steals all her best ideas, and more cats than is strictly logical. You can find her at hpwood.net | Twitter: @HilaryWrites | Goodreads
If you visit the author’s website, she has a Magruder’s scrapbook and victrola (playlist of music) filled with the music she listened to while writing the book.