cover image The Hatbox Baby

The Hatbox Baby

Carrie Brown. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $22.95 (333pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-299-4

Chicago's 1933 World's Fair boasts both scientific marvels and carny-style showmanship in Barnes and Noble Discovery Award winner Brown's entrancing third novel, the two main attractions being fan dancer Caroline Day and the world-renowned premature baby doctor, Leo Hoffman, who exhibits his preemies in the ""Infantorium."" The fair provides a convenient backdrop against which to chronicle the transient lives of an eclectic collection of ""fair people,"" and some of those characters come vibrantly to life. Brown's (Rose's Garden; Lamb in Love) beguiling narrative shifts points of view--from the homuncular St. Louis Percy (Caro's cousin, sidekick, and sometimes confidant) to the taciturn Dr. Hoffman, who is devoted to the care of his mostly abandoned, imperiled infants and who hopes someday to get his innovative incubator hospital out of the freak-show sector and into the scientific one. A tiny, very premature baby boy is brought to Hoffman's door in a hatbox, deposited by a distraught young father, who then enters the theater where Caro dances--and is brutally and inexplicably murdered. Over the young father's body, the doctor and the dancer meet, their fates linked by the circumstances surrounding the abandoned child. The hatbox baby's young mother is too frightened to find out what happened to her child, who soon becomes the chief object of fascination of nearly every character in the novel. The romantic pairing of Dr. Hoffman and Caro blossoms dreamily amid more substantial developments involving the staff and management of the incubator hospital, the local controversy about the ""exhibition"" of humans, and the sympathetic story of St. Louis, eager to forge a life away from traveling fairs. Brown's dramatic and multifaceted tale doesn't simply rest on the intrigue of a moment in American medical history when premature infants were displayed as ""freaks."" While she navigates readers through the complex intersections of medicine, social responsibility and free enterprise, her lyrical, touching story succeeds on the strength of her affection for the characters she accords dignity and a yearning for love. 8 city-author tour. (Sept.)