Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Once Upon a Time in New York

New York City has always been in my mind the center of the world. Scrabbling about in old memories, I get the feeling that my fascination with the city began when I was about fifteen. I can distinctly remember as a high school student telling others I was going to live there one day. Well, that dream was eventually fulfilled and I spent a spectacular eleven years living in Manhattan, most of them downtown on Charles Street in Greenwich Village. Though I chose to attend university elsewhere, I still believe that my real education came with my years in New York.

I used to knock around with a guy in New York who loved walking the streets and discovering small bits of the city’s history. There must be a dozen or more places in New York’s five boroughs I would never have stumbled upon had I not been led there by my old friend, Norman. I expect it was he who instilled in me an interest in the history of New York.

In November of this year Doubleday released a new book by Edward Rutherfurd called simply, New York. Rutherfurd is known for his other books of historical fiction centering on European cities and sites, but as a longtime resident of New York, apparently he thought it was time to pay homage to his adopted city. He has done that in an 860 page epic of the city’s history between the years 1664 and 2009, which alternately fascinates, captures and disappoints the reader. At least that was my experience as a big fan of his other books, and true enthusiast for New York stories. It is a great read, but may let you down in some ways, and in some parts of its author-manipulated timeline.

To his credit, Rutherfurd offers a good cross section of New York’s melting pot, though he slights some ethnic groups in favor of others. There is a good long section about the early Dutch, and of course lots about the English. Those characters are full-bodied and carefully developed. But the same cannot be said of the Indians who first inhabited the area. There is expectation that later generations of Pale Feather’s line will be expanded, but Rutherfurd opts instead to replace children and grandchildren with the pointless trail of a passed on wampum belt made for Pale Feather’s Dutch father. I also hoped the Black character of Quash and his descendants would be followed a little differently, or at least more fully.

The city’s history is unraveled for the most part in fascinating chapters, but here too, one gets the feeling that some actions and events are weighted too heavily, leaving little room for other spikes on the historical map. The largest sections of the book deal with the city’s place in two major conflicts, the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The earlier pages are the books best, but once Rutherfurd brings the city and his characters to post Civil War history, the story becomes watery. Elevated tram lines aside, it was surprising that something as big and iconic as the building of the New York subway system would be ignored. Apart from an excellent section on the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1910, pages devoted to the early twentieth century seem hurried, and by mid-century the descriptions too often bear resemblance to a guidebook stroll down Fifth Avenue.

As you might expect, the story takes us through the nightmare of 9/11, with four of the book’s characters headed downtown to the World Trade Center on that historical morning. But by this point the story is near its end, and the pages between 2001 and 2009 are fast and few.

I hope that my partially negative impressions don’t turn you away from reading this book. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s long, and it’s not perfect, but it is a good read worth the time and price.

1 comment:

  1. Great review, I've been going back and forth on this one mostly because I'm a bit NYC'd out at the moment by re-reading Luc Sante's Low Life as well as a history of the Five Points. Will put it on my wish list and take a look later.


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America