Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet – H.P. Wood

How utterly marvelous this book was.

It all begins with a blonde girl sitting on a bench on a beach. Despite the families playing in the sand not far from her, she is as alone as anyone can be. She is picked up by a conman who introduces her to a whole new world – that of Coney Island and its denizens. “You call us Unusuals, freaks, monsters… Did you never think we’d have our own name for you […normal people]? Dozens. As in, dime a.” I think I like that even better than “Muggles”.

I’ll admit, it took me a few minutes to adapt to following as a main character, as our hero, a young man – Zeph – who lost half of himself in an accident with a tractor, and who now travels on his hands. I also admit that it took a moment to settle in with Rosalind and several others of the Unusuals. But after those few minutes I discovered in him one of my favorite characters of the year. On top of all the laudable attributes – courage and strength and loyalty and sheer indefatigability – he’s also funny. “Aw, now. He paid enough to fix the tractor, so…”

If this had just been a tale set amid the Unusuals of Coney Island, it would still have been a special story. But the reason Kitty Hayward – that blonde girl – was all alone on the beach was that her mother was suddenly taken sick, and seems to have, somehow, disappeared from their hotel. (” What did Shakespeare say? How sharper than a serpent’s tooth to have a child lose your corpse?”) And as bubonic plague washes over Coney Island like a tsunami (no, it didn’t really happen – it’s all “what-if?”), Kitty finds a new clan among these folk who make their living off the prurience of Dozens. The story at times becomes brutal – as survivors on “The Walking Dead” discover, the healthy are to be feared at least as much as the diseased, and very often, through fire and water and blood and death, it seems like anyone at all can be lost. And the beauty of the storytelling is that this means I was on the edge of my proverbial seat: every death was hard, because I was wholeheartedly part of the clan as well.

Quotes saved:

People who plunk down for the Hell Gate ride— what do they want? A thrill? A good scare? Perhaps that’s all it is. Or perhaps they fear, deep down, that there’s nothing more to their existence than the fifty or sixty years they’ll spend scrabbling around this benighted planet. Maybe they’ll plunk down their hard-earned cash at Hell Gate just to feel, if only for a few minutes, that there’s more to human experience than that.

“What’s that mean, darling,” Rosalind asks.
“Is, ah, ‘into mouth of the wolf.’ But means more ‘good luck.’ Is like actors say ‘break a leg,’ you know this? And your response is ‘Crepi il lupo.’”
“Crepi il lupo,” Rosalind repeats. “And this means?”
“May the wolf die.”

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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