Alice Hoffman uses a kind of magical realism as well as careful historical research of the early 20th century in her novel, “The Museum of Extraordinary Things.”
The book is set in New York in the first half of 1911 and flashes back to previous decades. The characters, mysterious Coralie Sardie and immigrant photographer Eddie (Ezekiel) tell the story through alternating narratives.
Part mystery, part love story and part social commentary, the story takes place between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire on March 25, 1911, and the Coney Island Dreamland fire of May 26, 1911.
Coralie Sardie has led a sheltered life, raised by her father, who runs the Museum of Extraordinary Things on Coney Island.
Her abusive father, a once-prominent French magician turned mad scientist, has complete control over his daughter. Maureen, the housekeeper and something of a mother figure, shows her love and attention.
Over the years, Professor Sardie has displayed exhibits of oddities of every kind, such as the Butterfly Girl, the Bird Woman, the Wolfman, “Siamese twins,” the Bee Woman – and also lizards, frogs, hummingbirds, snakes and an ancient tortoise. Eddie, whose story runs parallel to Coralie’s, has become adept at taking journalistic photographs of crime scenes.
Professor Sardie permits no children under the age of 10 to enter the museum. Even though they live at the museum, Coralie has never seen it – until she turns 10.
Then her father has Coralie, an expert swimmer who was born with webbing between her fingers, put on a costume to spend her days in a tank as “The Human Mermaid” – an exhibit in the museum.
When business lags, Professor Sardie sends his daughter into the cold waters of the Hudson River, hoping to start rumors of sightings of a sea creature. One night during one of her Hudson River swims as she comes ashore, Coralie stumbles upon the body of a young woman.
Through Eddie’s eyes the reader sees the Jewish Lower East Side. He is an immigrant and the son of an Orthodox Jew watching as his father works away in the garment industry, earning terribly low wages.
Eddie seems to have a gift for finding lost people and feels his purpose in life is to go off on his own “to pursue the light and find what was lost.”
As his mentor tells him, however, “It’s not finding what’s lost, it’s understanding what you’ve found.” But Eddie does not believe in love. He does not believe in anything.
Eddie has been hired by the father of a girl, Hannah, who disappeared in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, in which hundreds of garment workers were trapped on the ninth floor, locked in by the factory owners, and perished.
It is on another of her night swims that Coralie discovers Eddie Cohen. Coralie’s and Eddie’s lives become linked through this meeting and ensuing events.
As the history of the dead woman is gradually revealed, the paths of Eddie and Coralie come together before the mystery is solved. And when Coralie rebels against her father and enters his workshop to examine his secret diary, she discovers that everything she knows about her past is a lie.