Nellie Bly and the Church of Marvels

Church of Marvels

By Leslie Parry

So, you might wonder, what does famous and intrepid journalist Nellie Bly, best remembered for traversing the world in 72 days in 1889, have to do with Leslie Parry’s marvelous Church of Marvels? Read our previously published review that follows to learn the connection. What prompted this is today’s date, the day 126 years ago that Bly set out on her adventure. The journey saw her set a record and meet Jules Verne himself, the author of Around the World in Eighty Days.

Church of Marvels is quite a powerful and moving experience, not simply about gritty life in the substrata of (late) Gilded Age New York, but even more about the deleterious social constraints born by women, and especially, and more to the point, by those who could not fit into the rigid sexual molds of that era, nor, sad to say, our own modern times. While not a novel without issues, these pale in the brilliance of Parry’s intricate plotting (which she has said often bedeviled her), her controlled yet expressive writing, and, in particular, her subtle glissando approach to inserting key information—all very impressive.

The tale revolves around three story lines that begin to merge early on in the novel. Sylvan Threadgill, a night-soiler (one who cleans out privies), discovers a baby discarded as waste. Instead of abandoning her, as fellow cleaners encourage him to, he keeps the baby, trusting her to the care of an older woman. He then sets out to find the mother of the child.

Young Odile and Belle Church, daughters of Friendship Willingbird Church, work in their mother’s Coney Island sideshow, the Church of Marvels. One day, the Church burns to the ground, killing their mother and many of the attractions, all of whom society would have considered misfits and dealt with harshly, if not for Mrs. Church. Shortly afterwards, Belle vanishes, to reappear in the form of a cryptic note to Odile. Odile sets off to Manhattan to unravel the mystery of her missing sister.

Alphie awakens on the second day of her confinement in a hellish insane asylum (based on Nellie Bly’s exposé Ten Days in a Mad-House) located on an island off Manhattan. It’s essentially a dumping ground for unwanted women. While she endures brutal and degrading treatment at the hands of sadistic matrons, she befriends another inmate, the inscrutable Bloome Street, rendered so for a reason you will soon learn. Together they effect an escape from the isle of bedlam.

It doesn’t give away too much to reveal that all eventually converge on a character Parry has constructed as a sort of Janus. That is, she appears sinister and cruel when first introduced but later reveals herself as someone, though not perfect, the opposite of what you imagined her to be. In many ways, she’s like many of the characters in the novel and the novel itself, not exactly what think when you make your first encounter.

Those issues mentioned above have to do with the summing up, something that creates problems for even experienced novelists, namely an epilogue to tie everything together in a neat package. But this will trouble only a few who would always like a more organic ending.

If you’re looking for a different reading experience, you’ll do no better than Church of Marvels. w/c

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