I must say folks, the books I have been finding just keep getting better and better. When I
checked out this novel from the library, I was under the impression it was just about a girl whose father owns a “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” type of museum, and she falls in love with a boy, and so on and so on. Boy, was I wrong.
The novel is told from a first-person point-of-view that alters between past and present and between the main female character, Coralie, and the main male character, Eddie. The novel begins with Coralie describing her life in the museum, The Museum of Extraordinary Things. The museum is located on Coney Island in the early 1900s. One half of the museum is where Coralie and her father live. The other half is host to unordinary creatures and people, such as a 100-year-old tortoise, exotic birds, monkey twins, Butterfly Girl, Wolfman and many more. And once she is old enough, Coralie joins the ranks, as well.
Coralie was born with webbing between her fingers, and since she was young, her father made her practice holding her breath for long periods of time, swimming in the frigid waters of the Hudson River and running miles for endurance. All of this training leads up to Coralie’s debut as a mermaid in the museum, a place where her father places a giant tank of water and makes her stay in it for at least eight hours every day during the tourist season.
Then there is Eddie, the young Jewish man who came to New York from Russia with his father. Soon after their arrival, he leaves his father to join the boys who solve mysteries, such as missing people and murders, for a well-known “psychic.” Luckily, Eddie is able to escape that life and becomes an apprentice for a photographer, which leads Eddie to a career in freelance photojournalism. Yet, he soon learns the past is not easy to escape.
While readers are learning about the lives of Coralie and Eddie, they also are learning about how terrible life in New York City was during that time. Coralie discusses how women and children often had to sell their bodies in order to survive. Eddie talks about the harsh realities of working in a factory, and those realities are brought to life when he describes the Triangle Fire—a fire that occurred in a shirt factory and resulted in the deaths of many workers, including little girls.
In the end, what brings the two people together is the murder of a young girl, Hannah. She never showed up to work the day of the Triangle Fire but instead was found floating in the Hudson River with two black buttons in her hand and her lips sewn shut with blue thread.
There are many heart-wrenching scenes in the book, but Coralie’s final words in a letter almost brought me to tears, both happy and sad. In said letter, Coralie says, “people may or may not remember the heroes and the villains of our day, but all that the brave among us did, and all that they were, remains with us still. We had a year in which everything changed, when the world shifted and became something new. We no longer expected cruelty or mistreatment. We expected more.”
And I expect you to read this book!