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Curious Toys


Curious Toys

Few may remember it now, but in the early 20th century, Chicago was a hub for the burgeoning motion picture industry. Stars, screenwriters and sundry hangers-on converged on Essanay Studios on the city’s north side, where new movies were churned out weekly. During their downtime, they may have hopped the streetcar to Riverview Park, where they could enjoy all manner of entertainments, from taking a wild ride on the Velvet Coaster to gawking at the babies in the Infant Incubators.

This is the world that plucky 14-year-old Pin Maffucci, the hero of Elizabeth Hand’s CURIOUS TOYS, inhabits. Born a girl, she’s been living as a boy since her fortune-teller mother Gina took up residence at Riverview. Her disguise allows Pin to move about freely between the park and studio, hustling for the nickels and dimes that she can spend on an ice cream cone or a visit to the Comique to see the latest moving picture.

"Hand’s characters are fascinating, and the mystery at the novel’s core is both compelling and creepy, especially when she presents some of the murders from the killer’s point of view."

Pin’s costume also keeps her safe, since “no one blinked to see a white boy…sauntering along the Golden Mile, or ducking in and out of theaters,” a particular concern since Pin’s younger sister vanished under mysterious circumstances at some point before the novel begins. But for Pin, her boy’s clothes mean something more --- they allow her to be more fully herself. “For as long as she could recall, this was all she wanted,” she thinks. “When she remembered her dreams, she recalled being neither girl nor boy, only flying, nothing between her skin and the wind.”

Pin feels at home in the raucous world of the park, where her friends include Clyde, an African-American magician, and Max, the female impersonator (or “She-Male,” in the parlance of the times) for whom she works as a drug runner. But when she discovers the body of a murdered girl inside the Hell Gate ride, her world is upended. She forms an unlikely friendship with Henry Darger, an oddball janitor and the self-proclaimed president of the Gemini Child Protective Society. Together, they attempt to discover the killer’s identity.

Hand’s vividly imagined mystery immerses readers in the gritty world of 1915 Chicago, where Victorian conventions are giving way to a more modern world. Riverview is a place where the forbidden flourishes, from the couples canoodling in the theater balconies to the stalls selling pornographic French postcards. For the richly drawn cast of outsiders and misfits in CURIOUS TOYS, it’s a place where they can live as they choose. Some, like Pin, are wholly fictional, while others, like outsider artist Darger, are real people. Hand cleverly imagines Darger’s friendship with Pin as an inspiration for his idiosyncratic epic fantasy, THE STORY OF THE VIVIAN GIRLS.

A few chapters are told from Charlie Chaplin’s point of view. The actor --- then at the cusp of what would become worldwide fame --- is half-heartedly presented as a suspect, due to his flirtatious behavior with a teenage extra at Essanay who later turns up dead. But his presence is mostly an unnecessary distraction and seems like an opportunity for the author to demonstrate the extent of her meticulous research. A more interesting drawn-from-life character is a young Gloria Swanson, a teenage actress on the verge of stardom and an object of fascination to Pin. Newspaperman Ben Hecht and actor Wallace Beery also make appearances, and the text is peppered with references to serial killer H.H. Holmes and the Eastland disaster.

Hand’s characters are fascinating, and the mystery at the novel’s core is both compelling and creepy, especially when she presents some of the murders from the killer’s point of view. (The “curious toys” of the title refers to both the murderer’s life-size doll that he dresses in his victims’ clothing and the way society treats girls in general.) Pin is a young person coming into herself, who knows how she feels but lacks the vocabulary to articulate her desires. And she’s constantly bumping up against the limitations that society places on women and girls. Tellingly, both she and future star Swanson share a fascination with pioneering aviatrix Harriet Quimby, who broke with convention as the first female pilot in America.

Hand fully exploits the narrative possibilities of her setting, immersing readers in the colorful, vibrant world of Riverview. As a result, CURIOUS TOYS never lacks for atmosphere, though the story sometimes sags under the author’s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach. Amusement parks have always married a sense of fun with a sense of danger, and that’s certainly the case in Hand’s Chicago, where peril --- and possibility --- lurks around every corner.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on November 1, 2019

Curious Toys
by Elizabeth Hand