By Carrie Brown
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Now that America’s popular culture has come shuddering to a bloodless, synergystic, cash-glutted halt, it is small wonder that more novelists are scouring our past for compelling subjects. For The Hatbox Baby, Carrie Brown has a found a beaut—the story of Dr. Martin A. Couney, a German-born pediatrician who pioneered the use of incubators for premature babies, around the last turn of the century. Spurned by the medical establishment, Couney ended up displaying his “premies” out at Coney Island’s Dreamland park, and eventually in world’s fairs and amusement parks around the globe.
Ms. Brown, author of the previous novels Lamb in Love and Rose’s Garden, has redubbed Couney Dr. Leo Hoffman, and made him a little younger, but otherwise she has hewed close to the realities of the “Infantorium”—one of the many virtues of her poignant and well-crafted novel. Best of all, she has managed to avoid the two great banes of American literature, ironic detachment and magical realism; no small feat, considering the exotic story she has chosen to take on.
What Brown seems to understand is that if anything, American history suffers from a surfeit of the fantastic—always a lethal threat to good fiction. She has set herself instead to telling a limited story, to telling it directly, and to telling it well.
The year is 1933, and Dr. Hoffman has set up shop at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition—an especially loaded event and title for a city groaning under both the Great Depression and a typically oppressive, Midwestern summer. Dr. Hoffman is showing signs of wear and tear, too, in his long battle to win recognition for his life-saving innovations. His incubators are still considered little more than another freak show, and he has been shunted off to a location next door to the fabulous fan dancer, Caroline Day. Some of the fair’s stuffier organizers, who would just as soon let premature babies quietly expire to preserve their “dignity,” spend the summer trying to shut down his Infantorium altogether.
The baby in question immediately becomes Dr. Hoffman’s toughest case. It is a tiny little boy, “it’s head no bigger than a small orange,” born three months early to a local couple, and delivered to the Infantorium in the hatbox by a dazed and luckless father. The man then wanders off before anyone thinks to get his name, stops to take in Caroline Day’s show, and is stabbed to death in a senseless melee.
Only St. Louis Percy, Caroline’s cousin, confidant, and major-domo—and once a premature baby himself—realizes the dead man’s connection to his infant son. Percy is a gregarious, middle-aged carny and “almost a dwarf,” a short, homely man with an ugly face but one that people tend to trust. He also an extremely resourceful fellow; a clown, a master of sleight-of-hand tricks, and an occasional pickpocket, who is nonetheless feeling weary, literally sore-footed—”He’d never had a really good pair of shoes”—and at loose ends after a lifetime spent on the road. He is looking for something else, but reluctant to leave the beautiful cousin “Caro” he adores and whom he has followed through innumerable fairs, shows, and amusement parks since he was a teenager.
This would seem to put all the midway stereotypes in place—and it’s not giving away too much to reveal that Caroline, the stripper with a heart of gold, starts an affair with Dr. Hoffman, or that Percy, comes to think of himself as the hatbox baby’s special protector. Or that much of the rest of the plot revolves around who will end up with Hoffman’s latest charge—presuming he survives at all.
But The Hatbox Baby is much more nuanced, and more satisfying than these elements might suggest on their face. For one thing, it helps that Brown’s work is suffused with a warm and sympathetic intelligence—yet one that never slops over into sentimentality. Her characters are vivid, believable, and engaging, but never maudlin—right down to the infants, fighting for life in their incubators.
For another thing, it helps that she can write. The Hatbox Baby fairly glitters with descriptive jewels. Brown does a superb job of reproducing a whole world. Here, for instance, is Evie, the hatbox baby’s aunt, watching his mother, Sylvie, at her job as a movie ticket taker: “From the sidewalk, where Evie stood in the shadow of a tree and hesitated in the warm, penetrating darkness of the street, she could see Sylvie in her illuminated glass ticket booth, a distant figure, a squat, bored idol on her makeshift throne, her round shoulders slumped, one hand held up before her mouth, which was opened in a yawn like a cat’s, a pink hole laced with white teeth.”
Or Caroline and Dr. Hoffman, watching a storm from high atop a Ferris wheel: “Dull, soft, shuddering flashes of distant lightning broke somewhere over the flat, soaked fields of Illinois, illuminating her face near his own as they sat side by side on one of the bench seats, holding on to the silver bar before them.” Or the fair itself, remembered from a distance: “Far away in Chicago, the music swelled, the colored lights swung crazily over the lagoon, the jewel-collared leopard at the feet of the Ethiopian princess sprang up and paced against its tether, the crowds pressed together at the entrance to the fan dancer’s show, and inside, Caro stepped into the blue smoke onstage behind her waving ostrich-feather fans.”
Some readers may be disappointed by the ambiguous ending, or the author’s decisions not to delve deeper into the era of the fair, or, again, to tack some kind of mystic significance onto these babies-turned-sideshow attraction. But Carrie Brown weaves plenty of magic on her own. She has made the best choice, which is first and foremost to tell a good story.
Kevin Baker is the author of the historical novel, Dreamland.
© Copyright The Chicago Tribune 2002