Coney Island Amusements: Background information when reading Church of Marvels

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reviews |  Beyond the Book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

Church of Marvels

by Leslie Parry

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry X
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    May 2015, 320 pages
    May 2016, 352 pages


  • Rate this book

Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
Buy This Book

About this Book

Coney Island Amusements

This article relates to Church of Marvels

Print Review

Coney Island, Brooklyn has long been known as a seaside vacation destination. As early as the 1830s, it was a retreat for New York City workers, and its attraction grew as it became more accessible by train, streetcar, and steamboat. Between the 1880s and World War II, Coney Island was the nation's foremost leisure area, with three large amusement parks in competition with each other, plus numerous smaller attractions.

Thompsons Switchback Railway Attraction at Coney Island Steeplechase Park, the first of Coney Island's major establishments, opened in 1897, followed by Luna Park in 1903 and Dreamland in 1904. All three parks suffered devastating fires (as did Phineas T. Barnum's American Museum in the 1860s), so the demise of the titular theater in Leslie Parry's Church of Marvels is wholly believable. The reports of the Dreamland fire, which left big cats wandering the streets, may have been a particular source of inspiration for Parry.

Early circuses and carnivals frequently highlighted human oddities such as Barnum's General Tom Thumb (more about him in The Remarkable Courtship of General Tom Thumb) and the original Siamese twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. One Dreamland attraction was Lilliputia, Samuel Gumpertz's miniature city inhabited by 300 little people. The park also displayed early incubators – not yet approved for hospital use – where premature triplets born into the sideshow owner's family were treated.

Myrtle Corbin Although "freak shows" are no longer considered politically correct, at the turn of the twentieth century they were still popular. For instance, Georgette, the four-legged performer in Church of Marvels, may be based on Myrtle Corbin (1868–1928), who had the legs of a dipygus twin dangling between her own. Nowadays, Coney Island performers are celebrated not so much for their physical differences as for superhuman feats. Many of these are traditional circus acts, such as sword-swallowing, breathing fire, and snake-charming.

Coney Island entered a decline in the mid-twentieth century, marked by the closure of Luna Park in 1946 and then of Steeplechase Park in 1964. New Yorkers were more likely to go to movie theaters or drive to local beaches than they were to travel out to Coney Island. However, the New York Aquarium, a museum, and various amusement parks have remained major attractions, and there is still a circus sideshow that runs from March to September.

Present-day Coney Island Skyline Other annual events include the New Year's Day polar bear swim, the Mermaid Parade, a film festival, a burlesque show, Nathan's hot dog eating contest, and a Halloween extravaganza. The island also plays host to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league baseball team. Parks and businesses suffered severe damages during Hurricane Sandy in 2012, but most reopened by the following season.

Now, as much as in the late nineteenth century, roller coasters on the outer New York City skyline define Coney Island in the national imagination.

Picture of Thompsons Switchback Railway by Yolan C.
Picture of Myrtle Corbin by Charles Eisenmann
Picture of present-day Coney Island by Boris

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Church of Marvels. It originally ran in June 2015 and has been updated for the May 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Support BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Join Now!

Today's Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: My Heart Underwater
    My Heart Underwater
    by Laurel Fantauzzo
    Corazon — Cory — Tagubio is a Filipina-American teenager living with her family in ...
  • Book Jacket: Black Sun
    Black Sun
    by Rebecca Roanhorse
    Reading the first book in a series is always difficult because readers know that, by definition, it ...
  • Book Jacket: Somewhere in the Unknown World
    Somewhere in the Unknown World
    by Kao Kalia Yang
    Resettled refugees are mostly invisible. Their needs are rarely publicized and their struggles are ...
  • Book Jacket: The Orchard
    The Orchard
    by David Hopen
    The protagonist of David Hopen's first novel, The Orchard, is 17-year-old Aryeh Eden, a Brooklyn boy...

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    by Charlotte McConaghy

    An instant bestseller set on the brink of catastrophe, for readers of Flight Behavior and Station Eleven.
    Reader Reviews

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
The Exiles
by Christina Baker Kline

The author of Orphan Train returns with an ambitious, emotionally resonant historical novel.

About the book
Join the discussion!
Win This Book!
Win Jack

Return to Gilead with Jack, the instant New York Times bestseller

Enter to win Marilynne Robinson's latest novel in her classic series.



Solve this clue:

I G I O Ear A O T O

and be entered to win..

Books that     

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.