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New York: The Novel

New York: The Novel

By: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication Date: September 2010
ISBN: 978-0345497420
Reviewed by: Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D.
Review Date: November 2010

If, like me, you like your history in great big, fantastic bites, New York (860 pages) is for you. As Rutherfurd, author of Sarum, Russka, London, and other thick historical novels, writes, this is “first and foremost, a novel. All the families whose fortunes the story follows are fictional, as are their parts in the historical events described.” There is real history aplenty here, of course, and historical figures, too, from George Washington to Enrico Caruso.

As the book opens in 1664, New York is New Amsterdam, ruled by Peter Stuyvesant, a still-primitive land of Dutch merchants and traders, native tribes (most of them soon to be wiped out), and a few English adventurers. As the years roll on, we meet the earliest members of the families whose generations populate the city and the novel: Van Dyke (Dutch), Master (English), Keller (German), O’Donnell (Irish), and Caruso (Italian). Generations of these families meet, separate, meet again, and all along the way witness and participate in historical events from the American Revolution through the Civil War Draft Riots to the Gilded Age to the millennium and the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

As in his other novels, Rutherfurd provides really useful maps: Old New York, showing the earliest European settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan; early Manhattan Island, showing the Indian trail that became Broadway and several Bouweries (Dutch farms); 19th and 20th century New York, showing Central Park and dozens of famous landmarks from Five Points and the New York Stock Exchange in the south to Columbia University and the Cotton Club in the north; and the New York City Region, showing Staten Island, Long Island, Brooklyn, Kings and Queens Counties, the Broncks, the Jonker’s land, and the Hudson River. Readers can track the action of the story and the characters on the maps.

New York is, at base a book about freedom. The first line in the book is “So this was freedom,” uttered by a Dutch trader riding a canoe on the North River (later to be called the Hudson) with his Indian daughter. The book ends three and a half centuries later as a descendant of that trader gazes at Strawberry Fields in Central Park and hums John Lennon’s song, “Imagine.” “That was the spirit, the message of this city he loved. You really didn’t need anything more. Dream it and do it. But first you must dream it. Imagine. Freedom. Always” (pg. 860).

Quill says: Read the book, and you’ll want to visit the city again and see everything with your own eyes. Like the city itself, New York is wonderful—that is, filled with wonders.

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