Saturday, November 19, 2005

Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Set in a time of great social change, New York around 1910, this book should have been fantastic. The setting was interesting, the time was interesting, the characters were varied, and the book was, well to be blunt...hard work. If I hadn't been reading this with a group I would have put this book down with every intention of picking it up again, but then never quite getting around to it!!

It's not that I didn't like this book. I really love it when a book drags you in so far that real life is a distraction, and there were several times with this story that I felt as though that was just about to happen, but then the author would reintroduce a previous character and change the storyline to one of the many subplots, and I would be left waiting for that moment to come.

The main settings for this book were in the amusement parks of Coney Island, a collection of rides, freak shows, animal shows that we wouldn't even think of putting on today. As an example, one of the "shows" was an everchanging display of premature babies in their humidicribs, put on display as they fought for their very life. The other main setting was the tenements of New York where the mobsters and gangs ran everything, including the politicians.

Among the main characters are Esther, a machinist in the factories who is slowly getting immersed in the union, fighting for reasonable working conditions, Gyp the Blood, a man who breaks the backs of others for $2 bets, Kid Twist who starts off the book as one of Gyp's henchmen, along the way getting on his bad side, and therefore having to hide out in Coney Island with Trick the Dwarf after having saved Trick from being one of Gyp's victims. When we first meet Trick he is living in the Elephant Hotel, based on a real hotel that was built in the shape of an elephant in Coney Island. During the course of the book Trick has become a self styled mayor of a built to scale town for dwarfs, living there with his queen, Mad Carlotta. Tim Sullivan who is a Tammany Hall politicians with plenty of demons of his own. We even have a subplot featuring the famous psychiatrists Jung and Freud, although I am still not entirely sure why they needed to be there (just another subplot by chance?).

The major plots revolve around the strikes of the early 1900's that eventually gave the people in the textile industries of New York the right to work only 56 hours a week, the major fire that occurred at the Triangle Shirtwaist company, killing 156 women, children and men in less than an hour, the murder Beanie Rosenthal and the following police corruption enquiries, along with the fire that destroyed Dreamland. All of these events really happened, although the author has taken some literary licence with the dates that these events occurred.

All in all, I was left unsatisfied, and feeling as though I had worked so hard to get through this book that I needed to go and have a rest afterward! Now, off to read something a little lighter!

Rating: 3.5/5

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