The Hatbox Baby

Written by Carrie Brown
Review by Marcia K. Matthews

 

Diane Arbus meets Fritz Lang in this World’s Fair as metaphor for life. Carnival freaks are human beings, and human beings are freaks, damaged like the vulnerable preemies whose incubators are a sideshow attraction in 1933 Chicago. Author Carrie Brown paints with wide strokes of black and white in the metropolis, and color in the countryside.

No one expects Dr. Hoffman’s charges to survive, but with modern technology and a loving staff, he accomplishes miracles. He knows he’s not God and that fate will step in.

St. Louis identifies with the dispossessed. As a dwarf, he evokes “The Tin Drum”, wherein a boy acts out the chaos of 1930’s Germany. Dialogue and characterization bring him and his cousin Caro, the fan dancer, to life.

The theme of the World’s Fair is Century of Progress. Its organizers pitch a relentless modernity. “People had to be made to believe. They had to feel their smallness, in a way, their ignorance, in order to desire the future…They had to want …what the future offered–bigger and sleeker cars, freezers and refrigerators in every kitchen, airplane travel, superheterodyne radios, Technicolor movies, buildings taller than Chicago’s Wrigley Tower or New York’s Empire State Building. They had to be wooed and won by the light and the razzle-dazzle, and they had to yearn to jump off blindly into the swift currents of the future, even if they didn’t know where the river would lead them.”

This frenzy for technology resonates in our millennial time. You are convinced that you must have cable TV, a cell phone, the Internet, and a third generation Personal Digital Assistant to hook your cell phone up to the Internet. Why not just implant each of us with a pico chip and download our innermost thoughts? I can just hear Big Brother accusing, “Why did you turn off your 3G device?” Readers of historical fiction agree, simpler times were better.

In this modern world of industrial art, Dr. Hoffman takes over “the unfinished work of so many women’s wombs.” St. Louis, Caro, and Dr. Hoffman are brought together by the baby in the hatbox and the murder of the young man who dropped him off. The dwarf, the stripper and the doctor ally to save the child.

Written in over-the-shoulder, shifting viewpoints of endearing characters, full of scientific and literary references, nostalgia and intelligent issues, this novel has much to say about the redeeming power of love.