Make no mistake about it, this is a big book in both size and stature. To attempt to tell the story of one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic cities is always going to be a tall story. Edward Rutherfurd is a specialist of the historical novel focussing on a geographical location, with similar books already published on London, Sarum and Moscow. But New York, however, is his most ambitious project yet.
The story begins in the 17th Century, with the first Dutch settlers who inhabited Manhattan, and their interaction with the Native Indian people. Soon the English arrive, and oust the Dutch. But most of the Dutch settlers remain and adapt to life under English rule. Out of this period we meet the Master family, who are very much at the spine of the story. Of course soon the colonies rise up in rebellion, leading to the American Revolution and the declaration of Independence. Throughout the Nineteenth Century New York witnessed much change, with a number of large communities emigrating from Europe – Irish (the O’Donnells), Germans (the Kellers) and Italians. The Dead Rabbits and Tammay Hall, a la Gangs of New York – feature. We witness the development of New York as a financial centre, and the events surrounding the Wall Street Crash. In the later twentieth century a wave of Jewish Immigrants arrive, as well as Puerto Ricans.
The central theme of the book appears to be that various communities of settlers have been arriving in New York for generations, and throughout history have integrated into the city, making it what it is today – these are the hands that built America, as the song goes. The Big Apple is greater than the sum of its parts, we feel. And with apologies to Washington DC, you cannot help but feel that New York is the unofficial capital of the United States of America. But interestingly, right at the end Rutherfurd invokes a Wampum Belt, Indian made, that first appears in the 17th Century – a reminder that the Indians were there before anyone else, perhaps?
Historical novels are not the easiest to review – not only are you looking for historical accuracy and atmosphere, but also aspects of literature too. In terms of history, whilst I am by no means an expert on American History, if there are any errors I’m sure they are minor. Regarding the literature, Rutherfurd’s writing has evolved since the writing of London some years ago – the whole story flows better, is not so compartmentalised, and is less tiring to read – which is important in such a mammoth book!
Its often said that a good song will make a kid want to go out and buy a guitar. If thats so, shouldn’t a good book want to make the reader do two things – either immerse themselves in the subject, or try to emulate what they have just read? For the record, this book makes me want to not only visit New York, but has made me wonder how interesting a similar book about Portsmouth might be.