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The Light of Luna Park


The Light of Luna Park

“Overwhelmed, I doubt my ability to stay here and hold this baby while she shakes and wheezes and dies. But my body is stronger than my mind. ‘None of us can know what we are capable of until we are tested,’” Elizabeth Blackwell once said. The first woman to get a medical degree in the United States, Blackwell was capable of anything. I am capable of this. I was capable of risking my entire life to save Margaret from certain death, wasn’t I?”

In 1926 New York City, Althea Anderson is a young nurse who witnesses yet another baby die prematurely. The emotional strain is palpable, and her heart breaks every time it happens. What could change this awful rash of deaths during this difficult time? THE LIGHT OF LUNA PARK takes us on a surreal but historically sound journey into a time when the freak show at Coney Island benefited from the foibles of American medicine and changed hundreds of lives by inspiring one courageous nurse.

When Althea discovers an exhibit about babies being treated in incubators at Luna Park, Coney Island, she sees evidence of the miracles she’s been searching for at Bellevue. The doctors there dismiss her ideas and this unconventional method of medical practice. When faced with another painful and unnecessary death, Althea is forced to make a choice that will shape her life forever.

"Bravo to Addison Armstrong for such a beautiful and heartfelt paean to those in the medical world who used their talents and abilities to change the lives of people for good."

Years later, Stella Wright is having a 1950s-era meltdown. Nothing is going right for her --- her mother has recently passed away, she has quit a job that she felt certain was perfect for her, and her husband is not being supportive, putting her marriage in jeopardy. Going through her mother’s belongings, she finds a letter that makes her question everything she thought she knew about her mother’s life…and herself.

Addison Armstrong’s book takes us into some very weird territory, when premature babies were saved by doctors at Coney Island, then put on display at sideshows on the famous boardwalk alongside Nathan’s hot dogs and the Illustrated Man. The brave nurse of her story finds lightning in a bottle when she sees this display and realizes just how the medical profession can go about saving these children and giving them normal lives. Althea tries her hardest to make her discoveries palpable to the establishment, but her medical environment is not ready to make such treks into the unknown. Upon discovering her daring and the love that inspired her, Althea’s daughter, Stella, realizes a treasure trove of bold and life-affirming actions.

Each chapter is set in a different year and is told by a different narrator. Armstrong takes readers between the two women’s histories, slowly binding them together as Stella goes on a quest through her mother’s letters to understand the complexity and importance of Althea’s work, especially as it relates to her.

Armstrong has a strong subject here and wonderful characters whom every reader will admire and care for, even when some of their choices may seem strained. The context of the historical periods and how the culture of the time shaped their decisions and outcomes is wrought so carefully and in such a specific manner that you feel as if you are time traveling between chapters. THE LIGHT OF LUNA PARK is not a flashy novel, gripping you in its thrall with wordplay or histrionic incidences. Instead, Armstrong trusts the strength of her characters to pull you through even the most upsetting of events and the strangest of circumstances.

It is rare that the sideshow aspect of Coney Island’s history is presented in such a way as to highlight something other than its tawdry beachgoer boardwalk experience or its fascination with the strange and unreal. Although some of the plot centers on the surreal idea of displaying these babies in a public setting, the medical journey that it inspires in Althea is enough to make each reader feel intensely about these children, Althea and her work, and the shaping of her own child’s destiny years later.

Bravo to Addison Armstrong for such a beautiful and heartfelt paean to those in the medical world who used their talents and abilities to change the lives of people for good. As we appreciate and celebrate those who have put themselves on the front line of this pandemic, THE LIGHT OF LUNA PARK will remind us that this struggle has been going on, slowly but surely, for decades. It is a book full of hope and courage, one that is sorely needed right now.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on August 13, 2021

The Light of Luna Park
by Addison Armstrong

  • Publication Date: August 10, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 0593328043
  • ISBN-13: 9780593328040