“To anyone who feels too small to matter.“
So reads the dedication in my upcoming novel, Miracle at the Sideshow, releasing in a little more than one month on September 3.
As previous blog posts have described, Miracle at the Sideshow features protagonist Sophie Rosenfeld, an Eastern European immigrant living in New York’s Lower East Side in 1911, and who soon finds herself navigating the sensational and at times nefarious world of Coney Island and its sideshows.
I was viscerally moved as I began to research this historical novel. Many photographs of side show exhibits from the turn of the 20th century are quite disturbing. And yet the truth is, this was a different time in history. As much as it may bother us today, hundreds of thousands of people flocked to Coney Island, World’s Fairs, and circuses all over the world then. Freak shows and carnivals were the most affordable, prime entertainment of the time.
Of course some of the exhibits were staged, but many were not. Medical conditions such as Marfan’s Syndrome, dwarfism, conjoined twins, birth defects from poor nutrition (or lack thereof), genetic syndromes, and more caused conditions that made people different. According to stacks of books I read about the subject, defects caused people to be ostracized, marginalized, even rejected and orphaned by their families. Indeed many would have lived lives of poverty–even died–were it not for the opportunities to make a living sitting in side shows and at the mercy of exhibitors.
As ethicially wrong as it was (and is), they had few or no other choices.
This was not a pretty time in history.
Most prefer to think of Downton Abbey or The Gilded Age and other stories of the wealthy of that time. Such stories–and even history books–hide the fact that the eugenics movement (precursor to the Holocaust–and yes, extremely popular in America) was gaining wild popularity, promoting the riddance of people considered weak, different, or too unimportant to matter.
This included premature babies.
Neonatal medicine was not yet discovered, let alone available. Hospitals and doctors alike turned away premature babies and sent them home with their mothers who could do nothing but watch their infants die.
But around the turn of the 20th century, some were starting to pay more attention to premature babies.
To some, these children mattered.
Doctors in France are credited with creating the very first incubators, sometimes referred to as “hatcheries,” because they were inspired by techniques used to hatch chicken eggs. Dr. Martin Couney is credited with bringing these first contraptions to America and forging a path that led to neonatal medicine becoming mainstream.
The care Dr. Couney and his team provided to infants cost millions of dollars in modern day currencies. No doctors or hospitals would help him. The only way he could afford to save these premature babies was to put them in sideshows since he was determined to never charge parents a dime. (In fact, he died a pauper). Like the other exhibits, people paid to gawk, but they would not provide care.
No wonder Dr. Couney had to resort to the fantastical, the sensational, and yes, the controversial means to save these babies.
When we approached publishers with this story, we were rejected by tens of them, many of which stated they were afraid of offending readers. Whether the inclusion of sideshow “freaks,” Jewish immigrants, or Dr. Couney’s questionable tactics, again and again publishers stated “the writing is beautiful, but the story is not for us.”
To be fair, “cancel culture” is something to consider.
But I’m from Indiana, home of John Mellencamp who sang, “You gotta stand for somethin’, or you’ll fall for anything.”
As such, I decided to tell this story anyway with the hope that although unconventional and at times disturbing, the overwhelming goodness and life in these pages will move readers and leave them cheering. There is much to celebrate about the miracles that occured when one man took a chance and a stand for the smallest ones, despite the mockery, doubt, and actual punishment he faced.
I started writing this book nearly four years ago, well before the recent Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade. There is no way I could have known that the fight for the lives of infants considered “too small to save” would be on the front page of newspapers today. And yet, I do not believe that it is by chance that this novel is ready to release now, for such a time as this.
I am not afraid of repercussions.
I am and will always be for life.
And besides that, this is a story I really think you’ll like.