The premise of Carrie Brown's new novel, The Hatbox Baby, is irresistible. The setting is gorgeous; Brown's writing style is skilled and observant. Whether you come away pleased with the book overall depends on just how tuggable your heartstrings are. Mine are a little stiff when it comes to tiny infants and winsome protagonists. But there's enough firm detail and gaudy life here to make it worth the read.
The novel is inspired by, though not strictly based on, the work of a Dr. Martin A. Couney, a pioneer in the practice of incubating premature infants. Along with others in his field, Couney displayed his tiny patients at fairs and exhibitions in the first half of the century, charging the public admission in order to finance the treatment and research. At a time when few hospitals could provide neo-natal care, a berth in Couney's Infantorium was often the best chance a preemie had.
Carrie Brown takes us to the 1933 World's Fair in Chicago, where Couney did, indeed, exhibit. Her fictional doctor, Leo Hoffman, while devoted to the babies themselves, is secretly ashamed of the sideshow nature of his work. The incubation building boasts a pair of storks and a fountain spouting blue and pink water by the front door. Crowds line up to fork over 25 cents and take the tour several times a day. To make matters worse, there's a fan dancer set up right next door, cavorting in the nude for many of the same customers. Hoffman is stiffly saint-like, bearing these indignities in bitter silence while he works his fingers to the bone.
The young infants live and often die in public. Like his historical counterpart, Dr. Hoffman does not charge the parents for the medical care. He is frantic to keep his work funded, but he cannot seem to keep it respectable at the same time. Many people are beginning to question the propriety of displaying the babies, threatening to close Hoffman down. Hoffman begs the fair's promoters to place his exhibit in the scientific corridor, but they have stranded him out on the decadent midway where he will draw the crowds.
As the title promises, a baby shows up in a hatbox. A young Chicago father brings him to the exhibit hall one summer morning, then flees in fear and confusion. On his way there, however, he catches the attention of St. Louis Percy, the story's real hero. St. Louis, named for the city, not the saint, was born a little early himself. He, too, was abandoned, by his real parents, and raised by relatives. The cousin who was his childhood confidant grew up to be Caroline Day, a farm girl who went bad and made good in the big cities.
Caro dances in the buff, waving fans around so skillfully her show remains just barely legal and her bank account swells, even in the midst of the Depression. She's the fan dancer next door to Hoffman's hospital, in fact. St. Louis trails around after her, acting as manager, bodyguard and surrogate for the family that has disowned her. It's a part-time job at best, so he fills his days with idle amusements: practical jokes, magic tricks, the odd bit of pickpocketing and investigating the lives of strangers. When the hatbox appears, he guesses there's a child inside, and soon becomes fascinated by the tiny creature. He sets out to ingratiate himself into the world of the Infantorium.
As the plot moves between the fair outside and the solemn atmosphere of the Infantorium, Carrie Brown's authorial voice really shines. Brown, a Virginia resident, though not a native, seems a good choice for an Algon-quin writer. Her style is Southern in the best sense--it revels in setting. Inside the infant hospital, voices are hushed, lights dim, we seem to breathe with the fragile pulses of the babies in their glass cribs. Outside is a riot, a marvelous freak show that amazes and mystifies. The 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition had apparently not progressed to a clean liberal humanist point of view. This fair offers snake charmers! Real red Indians! Electricity! The Streets of Paris (complete with real prostitutes)! Midgets! Nudists! Siamese twins! The list goes on and on. The characters weave through this picturesque chaos night and day. You get a marvelous sense of seething humanity: farmers from Omaha gawking at George Washington's teeth; young fair-goers stumbling home drunk and singing.
There is a sinister note to the energy of the crowds. A shoving match leads to a kind of stampede early on, and a murder results. For St. Louis, it brings on recurring dreams, of a fire he witnessed at a Coney Island amusement park. The following sequence is a good example of how gripping Brown's imaginings can be: "In his dream, images from that night come before his sleeping mind in a grave and relentless procession: the animal trainers, pale and sweating in their loosely belted white jackets, lining up their pistols in the smoke-filled chaos of the night and shooting the delicate leopards as they hissed and pawed in their cages, felling the staggering elephants, felling the gigantic, rearing Clydesdales, their white eyes rolling."
Sadly, the inspired energy that sets the scenes of the novel falters when we return to the characters themselves. They all seem curiously passive, endlessly delaying decisions, forever being about to say what they mean and failing to get the words out. The hatbox baby's parents in particular are motiveless, uncaring and mentally dim. Rarely does a scene play out in real time. Instead, there are endless flashbacks and ruminations that go over the same ground again and again. These folks analyze themselves in a way that smacks of modern psychotherapy, a jarring anachronism in their Depression-era carnival milieu. We are expected to believe that the good doctor Hoffman hasn't even thought about sex in 20 years, until he inevitably falls for the fan dancer Caro Day. Caro gets short shrift as a character. We are mostly told that she is ungodly beautiful (still, at the age of 45) and unfailingly kind. I'm afraid she is the stereotypical stripper with a heart of gold.
St. Louis is certainly more complex. His main beef is that he grew up to be short, "almost a dwarf" and very ugly. To compensate, he is agile, charming and intelligent. But he broods ceaselessly on his freakiness and childhood abandonment. Brown works way too hard on establishing this as a theme. She explains so earnestly how freaks are people, too, you kind of wish St. Louis had a boorish streak in his little body. But, alas, we find that in a dull moment once, he sent a fleet of red bicycles to an orphanage. He's extremely well read, too, and has progressive politics. Because he is so darn nice, you are supposed to root for him to have that hatbox baby.
Certainly, few authors could write a novel about premature babies without lapsing into sentimentality. Brown makes a courageous effort. Her World's Fair is full of grit and irony. But it's kept too far from the heart of her main characters. The deck is stacked in their favor, and the result feels manipulative. Not only does the birth mother not want her baby back, she's such a twit you're relieved when she drops out of the story. It is a peculiar modern fantasy being indulged here, one that fuels the excesses of the fertility industry. In this fantasy, babies cease to be a normal part of life that happens to most people, but not to all. They become precious rewards, brought by storks and technical wizards to those who want them the most, and struggle the most valiantly.
All in all, The Hatbox Baby has much to recommend it. It is solidly researched and vibrant in historical detail. Who wouldn't have fun wandering around the Century of Progress Exhibition, smelling the peanuts, staring at the wild beasts in their cages, going from fortune-teller to factory trying to decide which is magic and which is science in all of this? The novel is like making that trip with a slightly over-talkative guide. It's fascinating, but I wanted to say, hush, don't tell me what it all means. Just show me all of it. There's so much to see.