I’m currently about 1/3 of the way through Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things: A Novel. If you’ve read any of Hoffman‘s more than 30 books (including 8 for teens and middle readers), you’re familiar with her rich descriptions and The Museum doesn’t disappoint. Against the backdrop of late 19th early 20th century New York City, we meet Coralie Sardie, daughter of the Professor who owns and manages The Museum on Coney Island. Coralie does not consider herself to be “extraordinary” in any way but quite “ordinary”. She has a defect; between her fingers she has webs of skin for which the Professor makes her wear gloves. But because of this defect, he trains her from an early age in breathing techniques and swimming so that when she turns 10, the age one must be to enter the Museum, she becomes an exhibit herself: The Human Mermaid. She is exploited!
Coralie leads a solitary life. She doesn’t go to school or even associate with any of the other humans exhibited in her father’s Museum; her sole education is in the hands of the housekeeper, Maureen, her father, and her father’s library. Throughout the book we meet many other people who are used and abused: the other human exhibits, prostitutes, dwarfs, orphans, the deformed, and immigrants, many of whom work in the textile industry.
One of the deformed who comes to work in the Museum is Raymond Morris of Richmond, Virginia who her father dubbed, The Wolfman. Aside from the thick, dark hair thatcovered his body so completely, Raymond was very human with his rich, brown, “luminous” eyes and a “deep, resonant voice”. Like Coralie, his family had kept him apart from people all his life until he read Jane Eyre and “climbed out his window the same night he finished the novel”. As Hoffman demonstrates through Raymond and Coralie, literature can have an immense effect on the human heart. Parts of the story are told through 3rd person narration but other parts are told in the first person by Coralie and the other mysterious protagonist, Eddy, of whom I’ll tell you more later. This is what Coralie tells us about Raymond:
Mr. Morris once confided in me that for most of his life he’d truly believed he had all he would ever need, despite being raised behind locked doors. There was a nursemaid to care for him, and later a manservant brought whatever he wished. He had fine clothes, and any food he desired, for a cook had been hired from Atlanta to see to his whims. As he grew older, his greatest joy was reading. Because of this passion, his library surpassed those of many colleges. The life he led was enriched by the many novels in his collection, all of which he had read more than once. Although he’d never felt the rain, he knew what it was like from his readings, just as he knew about the limitless sea, and the golden prairie, and the pleasures of love. He was convinced that his world was enough, he told me, until he read Jane Eyre. Then his opinion changed. He could feel the world shifting as he devoured the story. He suddenly understood how a person could go mad if locked away from all others . . . (p.94)
Powerful ideas! In many ways, his life and Coralie’s paralleled until he climbed out his attic window to find himself beaten, jailed, and then rescued by the Professor to become exploited. His family had tried to protect him but he seemingly prefers to be an exhibit in what amounts to a freak show. Is this a better life?
It may be difficult to put yourself back in time to 1903 and into the position of having such an abnormality, assuming society has changed all that much, but if you can, which would you prefer, to be locked away from the world or to escape and experience life in all its aspects however tawdry and humiliating?