I recently visited Coney Island, famed for its Cyclone rollercoaster, the Wonder Wheel, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, and freak shows. So of course I was primed to read Tara Altebrando’s young adult novel “Dreamland Social Club” (Dutton Books, 2011).
Set in Coney Island, this book perfectly captures the nostalgia and gritty wonder of Brooklyn’s legendary playground, full of quirky, colorful characters.
Sixteen year-old Jane Dryden and her older brother have spent much of their lives moving from one place to another, following their father’s work as a rollercoaster designer and engineer.
Still grieving ten years after the death of Jane’s and Marcus’s mother, the family inherits their mother’s childhood house in Coney Island from a grandfather the children never knew, Preemie. “There was an amusement part here in the early nineteen hundreds,” Jane’s father explained. “Dreamland. Incubators had just been invented…Your grandfather was part of a premature baby display when he was born,” who later made a living “harassing people on the boardwalk into playing a carnival game where you shoot clown mouths with water guns.”
Her grandmother, Jane learned, was a sideshow act, supposedly part bird. Jane is determined to explore the secrets of her mother’s past, a life she both loved and longed to escape.
Jane is a wonderfully complex character who just wants to find a place where she can fit in, call home. But at Coney Island High, her new friends are Leo, the Tattooed Boy; Babette, a goth dwarf; Debbie, who sports a peach-fuzz beard; H.T., who has no legs; and a giant named Legs. Normal never seemed so…weird. Jane discovers that her mother founded the mysterious Dreamland Social Club, something that everyone seems to know about but her.
Over the course of the year, Jane finds herself in the middle of a decades-old family feud involving a carousel horse chained to the radiator the living room as well as an ongoing battle between a development company that might have a job for her father and preservationists who fear that their beloved Coney Island will be turned into another slick theme park and shopping mall.
This book is steeped in Coney Island history and the carnival-like atmosphere of Jane’s new world. If you’ve ever been to Coney Island, or know anything of its history, you’ll be nodding your head in delighted recognition throughout the book. If you’ve never been there, you may well find yourself making travel plans—or wishing you could. Fortunately, Altebrando lists some excellent resources for readers wanting to learn more about The People’s Playground.
This review was first published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, August 7, 2011.