A respected doctor and a notorious fan dancer fall in love at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, circa 1933.
This unlikely pair is brought together by a baby—born three months early and carried to the fairgrounds in a hatbox by his desperate young father, who hopes that Dr. Leo Hoffman, a pioneer in neonatology, can save him. To raise money for the care of these mostly unwanted newborns, Dr. Hoffman (based on a real doctor) exhibits them and their devoted nurses to the curious public in a special, scrupulously clean display known as the Infantorium. There, in an oxygenated incubator, the hatbox baby clings to life as visitors flock to view the tiny infants. Unlike the raucous carnival atmosphere that pervades most of the Exposition, the mood is one of hushed awe, almost reverence, for the nobly self-effacing doctor and his fragile little patients. Caro, the fan dancer (loosely based on Sally Rand) who performs next door, is a pink-and-white goddess, a free spirit who takes lovers as she pleases—although she remains essentially indifferent to all but Dr. Hoffman, who cannot resist her forthright sensuality. Her cousin, St. Louis, who serves as her go-between and protector, was himself born prematurely and takes an avid interest in the Infantorium—especially the hatbox baby, who remains unnamed and unclaimed after his anonymous father is mysteriously murdered amidst a crazed fairgrounds mob. St. Louis—a pickpocket, con man, and all-around trickster—then befriends a wet nurse the better to gain access to the infants. When misguided but determined protestors have the Infantorium shut down, St. Louis envisions a lonely future without the babies or Caro—and so steals the hatbox baby and heads home to the Virginia countryside.
Brown (Lamb in Love, 1999, etc.) tells her story with great delicacy, giving an otherworldly, luminous air to a tawdry setting and great dignity to her characters. A fascinating, lyrically written tale.