January 1, 1999
By James Klise
Before movies came along, New Yorkers flocked to Dreamland at Coney Island, where they could find every kind of marvel and amusement: freak shows, gondola rides, miniature replicas of famous disasters, even a hotel in the shape of a circus elephant. In this remarkable novel, Baker meticulously re-creates the splendor and seediness of turn-of-the-century New York-especially the street, where immigrants, politicians, grifters, and prostitutes all desperately mingled, playing their new roles. Like Doctorow’s Ragtime,Baker’s novel uses some historical figures as characters, such as Freud and Jung visiting on a lecture tour, but at its heart are Baker’s fictional characters looking for love: Trick the Dwarf, who thinks he’s found his queen; Esther, a sweatshop worker whose precious free hours are torn between the struggle for workers’ rights and the thrill of her first lover; and Kid Twist, an expelled member of the Jewish Mob who literally risks his neck for romance. Baker clearly enjoys the tale-spinning, driving the story forward at just the right pace, yet confidently pausing at times to revisit key scenes from his characters’ pasts; meanwhile, Freud and Jung debate passionately about influences on the psyche. Baker was the chief researcher of Harry Evans’ The American Century [BKL Ag 98], and the number of fascinating facts contained in Dreamland is extraordinary. Baker-the-storyteller, however, never forgets that his facts are only the footlights and props for showcasing the emotions at center stage. Masterful and moving, this novel can transform a reader’s relationship with our history.