Before Jane and her brother Marcus were born, their parents loved to travel. Since her mother's sudden death ten years ago, Jane and Marcus have lived all over the world with their father, who uproots them almost annually due to his structural engineering jobs. Now, just in time for Jane's junior year of high school, her family moves to Coney Island, to a house which belonged to a grandfather she never met - the childhood home of a mother she barely remembers.
Jane's lived a lot of places, but none of them were like Coney Island. Her classmates at Coney Island High range from the typical (the interchangeable pretty girls, the quiet kids and the loud ones, et cetera) to the not-so-typical (the bearded girl, the contortionist). The first student who talks to her is Babette, a no-nonsense Goth girl who happens to be a dwarf. She only comes up to Jane's waist, but she's as fierce as a pack of wolves. Altebrando's writing allows readers to picture Babette immediately:
Her ears were pierced more times than it seemed an earlobe could sustain. Her charcoal-lined eyes were a fierce turquoise, the color of an ocean near the equator. [...] The goth's tiny black T-shirt had a white silhouette of a girl's profile, with teardrops falling from her eyes. For a second Jane felt like that girl; she wanted to jump into the shadows of the shirt. - Pages 27-28
While her older brother Marcus seems to have no problem fitting in and finding friends, Jane feels more like an observer at first. While watching the way other kids interact at school and watching the old films she finds in her grandfather's home, she becomes intrigued by the culture and history of Coney Island. Jane never would have imagined that her family's roots were here, where women dress like mermaids and swim in aquariums and where carnival barkers easily part you with your money. Jane learns that her grandfather was a premature baby, and he was presented in an exhibit during his infancy, and that her grandmother dressed up in elaborate bird-like outfits - as in, part human, part bird, see the wonder, watch her perform! - and went by the name Birdie. Right there in the house they've inherited, there's a horse from a merry-go-round chained up to the radiator, bound by seemingly unbreakable chains and a lock. Jane's search for the key to open the lock is paralleled by her search for herself, her yearning to learn more about her mother, to recall more of her childhood memories, and to unravel the mystery of the Dreamland Social Club, an exclusive group with origins surprisingly close to home.
Jane befriends Leo, a tattooed boy. Remember, this is Coney Island, so unlike the rebellious motorcycle-riding soap star you may be picturing, this is a real kid, Jane's classmate, who has lived his whole life on the Island. He loves it there. When asked why and when he got different tattoos, including a seahorse that Jane finds strangely familiar, Leo is very honest and open with her. In that way, he reminded me of Wes in The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen.
It is through Leo that Jane learns more about the happenings on Coney Island. Developers are attempting to encroach on territories and close down old theme parks and other establishments. Jane realizes that the games her mother used to play with the kids were inspired by real games and rides at the theme parks, including Luna Park, the place that gave Jane her first name. (She has chosen to go by Jane, which is her middle name.) The tension builds when her father has the potential to get involved in projects that may remove these historic places in order to pave the way for new developments.
Tara Altebrando has incorporated the themes of loss and grief into all of her young adult novels to date. In The Pursuit of Happiness, the teenaged protagonist loses her mother; in What Happens Here, the main character loses a friend. Both of those novels detail the immediate reaction to and fallout from such a loss, whereas Dreamland Social Club takes place ten years after Jane's mother passed away. Losing someone is never easy, but experiencing loss as a young child is different than when you're a teenager or an adult. This, as well as one's hesitancy to open up to others, was addressed on one of my favorite television shows, Leverage:
"[I]f you lost someone when you were just a child, then you might put up walls to make sure that you never got hurt again. Trust me, this life is not worth living without the people that make us want to tear down those walls. The thrill of vulnerability, the danger of opening your heart, it makes us feel alive." - Sophie to Parker in Leverage: The Grave Danger Job, written by Rebecca Kirsch
Throughout the course of the novel, whenever Jane remembers and relives a memory from her childhood, it is expressed in first-person present tense, while the rest of the novel is in third-person past tense. The narrative shifts are easy to follow, as the memories are italicized and only appear here and there. Keeping those passages rare makes them more precious, as 90% of Jane's story is in third-person.
The characters in Dreamland Social Club are colorful, well-drawn, and memorable. It is great to hear and see (because you do, you really do) characters that are so passionate about their town's history, their personal paths, and their families and friends. It is their determination that drives Jane to speak up, to be a little more bold and expressive about her thoughts and feelings. As the band Switchfoot would say - would sing - they dare her to move.
Jane's brother and father are equally solid, and it's wonderful to see a family that gets along, even though each member of the family is quite different. Each has dealt with life's ups and downs in different ways, but they've stuck together through it all, and that's pretty cool.
Tara Altebrando has painted a picture of both a girl and a city who are struggling to find a balance between their past, their present, and their future. They must learn that it is possible to bridge the gap between the past and the future, to become who you can be without losing all that you once were. You should really join (read) the Dreamland Social Club and find out how.
Favorite lines and scenes include:
Mermaids were good at keeping secrets after all. - Page 137
"I read this essay once about how being on Coney Island is like looking at a double-exposed photograph, how past and present are both always there." - Leo, Page 233
Leo and Jane's argument, Pages 302-303
Leo's attachment to his father's workplace, Page 332
Back at their table Jane and Marcus revived an old game they used to play when dragged to their father's work functions. They acted like they were involved in a very deep conversation, but they were really saying nonsensical things like "Pudding has a bad reputation" and "It's funny you say that, because I've always found it to be the case that letters, when put together, make words." - Page 338
Leo quotes from The Beast at 20,000 Fathoms when he says: "I feel as though I'm leaving a world of untold tomorrows for a world of countless yesterdays." - Page 364
In addition to picking up Tara's other novels, I also recommend that you check out Mermaid Park by Beth Mayall, a wonderful work of fiction about a young woman who discovers an old tourist place with underwater shows.
Related Posts at Bildungsroman
Review: The Pursuit of Happiness by Tara Altebrando
Review: Love Will Tear Us Apart by Tara Altebrando (as Tara McCarthy)
Review: What Happens Here by Tara Altebrando
Review: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando
Interview: Tara Altebrando (March 2006)
Interview: Tara Altebrando (August 2006)
Interview: Tara Altebrando (November 2012)
Tough Issues for Teens Booklist