BookBrowse Reviews Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

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Curious Toys

by Elizabeth Hand

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand X
Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jordan Lynch
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Curious Toys is much like one of the roller coasters at Riverview Amusement Park: full of anticipation, excitement and unexpected twists and turns.

In Curious Toys, Elizabeth Hand tells the story of Vivian, a 14-year-old girl disguised as a boy named Pin who lives at the Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago. In the summer of 1915, Riverview is one of the city's most popular places to be, and Pin spends her days exploring the park and enjoying the freedom granted to a young boy in a busy place. That freedom is tainted, though, when Pin sees a man enter a ride called Hell Gate with a young girl and leave without her. Upon investigating, she discovers the girl's body, setting off a chain of events that threatens to reveal Pin's secret, and also puts her in the killer's crosshairs.

Although the crime is fictional, Riverview Park was a real amusement park in Chicago, and Hand has clearly done her research in creating a version of the setting that blends fiction with reality. The rides and shows of Pin's Riverview actually existed during that time, including the infamous Hell Gate ride, and the setting is a perfect backdrop for Pin's adventures and the dark machinations of a killer. The bright lights, sugary treats and laughter of Riverview provide a distraction from the poverty, gangs and despair of 1915 Chicago. But the park has a dark side: the glitz and glamour provide cover for illegal enterprises such as drug smuggling, and Pin's disguise as a boy allows her to act as a courier for these operations and earn a little money. Her disguise also keeps her safe from those who would prey on young girls, like Abriana, Pin's little sister who disappeared years before.

The disguise also serves a deeper purpose: allowing Pin to act upon her feelings without being judged. She identifies as a girl, but she prefers to wear men's clothing and begins to develop a fondness for a young actress she meets during her courier work. Pin is just beginning to explore her sexuality, and Hand, by dint of having everyone believe Pin is a boy, has provided her heroine the opportunity to examine these feelings safely in a society that was largely intolerant of anything outside the heterosexual paradigm. Pin's questioning sexual identity is a perfect example of the book's "not-what-it-seems" theme, which is further played upon in Riverview's She-Male show, where Pin's boss, Max, dresses in costumes to appear as if he is half-man and half-woman. Short chapters told from alternating points of view are also designed with this theme in mind, written to keep the reader guessing as to whether or not they already know the killer's identity.

One of these other points of view is from Henry Darger, a strange, seemingly mad young man who is another witness to the disappearance of the young girl on the Hell Gate ride. Pin is wary of Darger and his eccentricities, but she has no one else to help her solve the murder, and so the two team up to investigate. Although they get along, Pin continues to wonder if Henry is in fact the murderer, a worry that is further compounded once she gets a glimpse of Henry's artwork. The chapters from Henry's viewpoint don't necessarily read in his favor, either, creating the suspicion that Pin will find herself inextricably tangled in the murderer's web of deceit. Darger himself was a real person, and Curious Toys posits a fictional basis for Darger's epic fantasy story (see Beyond the Book).

With a spunky heroine, her odd but earnest partner, and a dazzling yet dark setting, Hand has created a page-turning tale that perfectly balances fiction with the true history of Riverview. Additionally, the inclusion of themes such as gender identity and the objectification of young girls make Curious Toys a story that is relevant for modern times while still maintaining the feel of early 20th century Chicago.

Reviewed by Jordan Lynch

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in November 2019, and has been updated for the October 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Henry Darger

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