Magruder's Curiosity Cabinet by H.P. Wood is one of the best adult books that I've read in a very long time. I really would recommend it with my heart. If you would like to read my book review for it, then click the link Here. This guest post, by the author, is a really good insight as to how the book has evolved into the story that you will hopefully read. I hope this post inspires you to pick up a copy and give it a try.
My book, MAGRUDER’S CURIOSITY CABINET, is set among the sideshow folk of 1900s Coney Island. Consequently, it features many characters who were considered “oddities” at the time, but who we today would describe as “disabled.”
As someone born into a pretty typical body, I had a lot of thinking and listening and researching to do, in order to create believable characters whose lives were so different from my own. The seed for all those characters can be traced back to someone I met more than 30 years ago.
I was just a kid—maybe 11 or 12? I’m not even sure now—and I’d gotten the opportunity to volunteer at a Special Olympics event. (Special Olympics was founded in 1968 to provide athletic opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities.) Each volunteer was paired with an athlete, and volunteers were charged with helping the athletes make their way from event to event, assisting them in whatever way they might need, and just generally being their buddies and personal cheering section.
I still remember the pamphlet I filled out in order to volunteer. So many smiling, joyful faces—people cheering, sharing snacks, putting medals on each other. And hugging. Lots and lots of hugging.
I was the only child of a taciturn New England family. I was down for some serious hugging.
So when the big day arrived, it was with much eagerness—and stored-up hugs—that I greeted my athlete. Let’s call her Iris.
Iris was not at all what I expected. She was older than me, for one thing, which was not important in-and-of-itself, but the thing was: Iris seemed aware that she was older, in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. Suddenly this notion of little me as Iris’s “helper” took on a weight I didn’t expect. I felt embarrassed of myself in a way that I couldn’t begin to understand at the time.
Iris didn’t smile. She didn’t seem to want to be friends. And she didn’t want a helper.
But she had trouble sorting out which event was next. The little map we’d been given seemed mysterious to her. Managing her sneakers and sweatshirt and backpack plus a water bottle and that damned map seemed insurmountable. So she did need me. But she didn’t want me. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to hug me.
We trudged from event to event, mostly in awkward silence. “Do you want to do X,” I would ask. “Should we go see about Y?” Iris would shrug and keep walking.
All around us: cheering, laughing, the occasional skinned knee. And hugging. Just like the brochure promised: lots and lots of hugging. But not for me.
At the end, I returned Iris and her participation medals to her kind-eyed parents. “Congrats on your medals,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could fake, “it was great hanging out with you.”
“Sure,” Iris said down at her sneakers. And that was it.
For a long time, I kept this story in my mental file of “Life’s Minor Disappointments.” But decades later, when I started working on MAGRUDER’S, the memory of Iris returned to me. And I realized that there’s a very different moral to that story than I’d realized when I was young.
Iris didn’t step out of some brochure. She was a kid like me. In a certain sense, yes, she was unlike me. But she was a complete individual with moods and motivations just as complex as my own.
Maybe it angered her to be led around like a puppy by someone younger than herself. Maybe she felt—even if she couldn’t express—humiliated or even enraged by the power dynamic between us. Maybe the whole spectacle offended her: all these neurotypical kids bused in to see how the other half lives, patting each other on the back for being such good little volunteers. Scooping up un-earned hugs like so many participation medals.
Or maybe the problem was simpler. Perhaps she wasn’t feeling well that day, maybe she’d argued with her mother. Heck, what if Iris just didn’t like sports? I never liked sports—my school’s annual “field day” events were nightmares for me. So why did I assume Iris liked sports?
On the other hand, maybe she had a perfectly fine time, and she just wasn’t able to communicate as much. I believe she let me take her hand at one point. To me, a poor substitute for a hug. But it could have been the very best she had to offer.
The point is, Iris was a subject—her own subject. She was not my object. It was not her job to make me feel good, or to compensate for whatever hug deficit I might have been experiencing.
Remembering Iris was just the beginning of the work I had to do in order to write MAGRUDER’S. But holding her in my mind, revisiting those eyes that didn’t owe me a goddamned thing, was definitely the foundation of everything that followed.
To be clear, the disabled characters in my novel aren’t angry, necessarily. I mean, sometimes they’re angry. Sometimes they’re happy. Sometimes they’re scared. Sometimes they’re in love. Sometimes they’re a little drunk.
Just like the rest of us.
About H.P. Wood: Is the granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician. Instead of making things disappear, she makes books of all shapes and sizes. She has written or edited works on an array topics, including the history of the Internet, the future of human rights, and the total awesomeness of playing with sticks. She lives in Connecticut with a charming and patient husband, a daughter from whom she steals all her best ideas, and more cats than is strictly logical. You can find her at hpwood.net.