Monday, August 9, 2021

Book Review: The Light of Luna Park

By Jami Denison

The freak show. Thank goodness we no longer put people on display who have the misfortune of being born with defects. But with movies like The Greatest Showman and with Tom Thumb and the bearded lady part of the vernacular, most Americans are somewhat familiar with that shameful period of time.  New York City was one of the most famous areas for this display, with P.T. Barnum’s show and the sights at Coney Island offering an up-close look at society’s unfortunates.

What isn’t so well known is that premature babies at Coney Island were also part of the show. And, “freaks” or not, the doctors at Coney Island’s Luna Park were saving these babies before hospitals became willing to take them on. While people lined up to pay a dime to see babies that could fit in nurses’ palms, behind the scenes they were warmed in incubators and fed through their noses with special spoons.

Author Addison Armstrong has focused her debut novel, The Light of Luna Park, on this scenario. In New York City in 1926, student nurse Althea Anderson works at Bellevue Hospital, helping out in obstetrics. When she assists in a premature delivery, she tells the new parents and doctors that the baby might be saved at Luna Park. But the obstetrician thinks it’s “God’s will” that the baby succumbs to her fragility, and the new father doesn’t want to risk bringing home a “freak.” So Althea takes the baby there herself, pretending that the infant girl has parents waiting for her at home. Soon she’s a daily visitor, hoping baby Margaret gets better while worrying what she’ll do when she’s discharged.  

Twenty-five years later, special education teacher Stella Wright is furious at how the principal of her school disregards her children. She wants to truly teach them, while he thinks they should be locked up in straitjackets. At the same time, she’s still mourning the recent death of her mother, and her marriage is on the rocks. Then she finds a letter that makes her question her entire life. 

Both Althea and Stella are extremely likeable heroines--emotional, impulsive, and unwilling to be constrained by society’s expectations. Armstrong had an especially challenging job with Althea, as her character resorts to criminal behavior, but the reader roots for her all the same. Still, the separate plots unfold in very predictable ways.

I was much more interested in the background of Luna Park, and the bigger question of how society at that time treated medically fragile babies and adults with challenges. Unfortunately for me, Armstrong decided to focus in very narrowly on the story of one baby. But with so much real-life material to work from, perhaps she’ll consider a sequel or companion work.

“Studying history will sometimes disturb you.” This saying has been trending on Twitter for the past few years, and these days it feels that history is constantly reminding us of our disturbing past. While books like The Light of Luna Park portray darker moments in our country’s history, they also serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come.  

Thanks to Putnam for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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