Eddie and Coralie are two young people caught up in the rapidly changing times of turn-of-the century (20th century) New York City, a place crowded with immigrants and sweatshops, home of the fantastically strange contrasted against the homes and avenues of the wealthy who fed on them. Each of these young people is raised by a father; each follows a path of duty; each will misunderstand their parent and be uncertain of their own worth.
Eddie (Ezekiel) escapes from the Ukraine with his father, his mother’s ashes left behind in the burning village razed by Russian horsemen — orthodox Jews being eradicated from the landscape in a pogrom (devastation) — his mother mourned but never spoken of again. He will live in a tenement without indoor plumbing, watch his father work at tailoring in a Manhattan factory — 12-hour days, fingers bleeding — and begin working there himself before he is 8. By age 11, he will deem his father a coward who cares nothing for him and will take to the streets, turning his back on his faith and heritage.
Coralie believes herself to be a freak of nature and, at her father’s insistence, wears gloves winter and summer to hide her webbed hands. She swims in the Hudson River and has developed a great capacity for breathing. It is the only place she feels truly free. She goes with him to all the seediest places where he seeks out other freaks — human and animal — the deformed, the abnormal, those dead, and those for sale. He takes Coralie with him because he weaves tales about seeking her mother; he makes her cry for sympathy so they will be allowed to search even in morgues. She does his bidding but with loathing. He is not a man to be crossed. His housekeeper, Maureen, has raised her but it is Coralie who has taught herself to read. When she turns 10 (1903), she becomes another exhibit in her father’s museum: The Human Mermaid. By 1911, when her father can’t pay his bills and so he turns Coralie into a sexual exhibit for private viewings, she resolves to be disobedient and to turn her back on her past life, to walk away from him and all he stands for. But she almost leaves it too late.
Eddie’s life strikes out on a new path the day he spies Moses Levy, photographer, practising his craft in a clearing before a “grove of twisted locust trees . . . in the moonlight” and Eddie is transformed by the scene:
I had . . . seen the light spilling down around me. The night was aglow. I wanted to look through the lens of his camera. I wanted it so badly I felt an ache in my chest. There was another world I had never known, one of great beauty that could make me forget what I had seen in my short time on earth.
He becomes a photographer himself and, when Moses dies, Eddie inherits all that he had. For his living, Eddie photographs the seamier side of life for the newspapers: criminals, victims, fires. He is witness to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (1911), to the young girls jumping to their deaths, to the lines of bodies laid out for viewing and claiming on the covered pier at East 26th St., and to the brave young people who mourn but, more than that, try to change the working conditions. His photos of the fire are the best he has ever taken. In his loft, he creates a wall of sorrow. He tries to help find what has happened to a single girl who hasn’t been seen since the morning of the fire. Her father can’t rest until he lays her to rest.
Coralie has seen Eddie and his dog, Mitts, one night when she has overshot her mark to emerge from the Hudson River. She, too, is moonstruck but with longing, with a love that she can’t shake. She has seen the girl Eddie is seeking — drowned, with her mouth sewn shut with blue thread. Her father has retrieved the body to make her into a half-monster, half-human for his exhibition. It is the final straw for Coralie.
There is a common thread running through this story. The two young people resolving issues with their pasts and with their parent; the brave people trying to effect change who see too much and are murdered with their mouths sewn shut; the disfigured and unusual who none-the-less have a self-respect and zest for life no matter how others see them; the fires that purify and effect change in individuals and in society. The story is told in part by the two young people, in part by an impartial narrator. It is two fires that force Eddie and Coralie to see themselves in a true light: the first, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, where 148 young women and girls either leapt to their deaths or were smothered by smoke inhalation, and the lesser remembered fire at Dreamland, Coney Island, where mostly animals died, not people but a turning point none-the-less. Watching Eddie and Coralie working out their fears and self-doubts, their personal histories and what their futures might hold is a spell-binding adventure in human nature.
Hoffman’s research is impeccable. Details about the fire, the people involved, the corruption in government that had allowed building safety codes to go unregulated, the unrest within both Manhattan and Brooklyn — the strikes, the violence — and the massive improvements at Dreamland that all went up in smoke, are well documented. Long before the end of the story you will want to learn more. There are many sites about the infamous TSF fire, the aftermath, the trials of factory owners and politicians. One amazing site shows a map pinned with the known victims’ names, their ages and addresses; most of the dead Italian or Jewish immigrants recently arrived from Europe. Here are some links you can follow plus an interview with Alice Hoffman where she discusses her book in detail. * * * * *
New York Times, March 26th, 1911 — 141 Men and Girls Die in Waist Factory fire
PBS — American Experience — The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
In Conversation with Judith Light — Alice Hoffman talks about the Museum of Extraordinary Things