Swerling adds the distinctive colors of humanity to her tale of New York City on the cusp of its Gilded Age. As the Civil War winds down, men of vision and wealth are anxious to see their dreams become reality. Transportation, real estate, industrialization, invention and drive push the city from expectations to fulfillment as fortunes are made and lost from Manhattan to Wall Street. Power brokers jockey for position as an above-ground transit proposal faces off with an underground rail system, business eschews unionization, and financial interests and capitalism stride like gods through the as-yet undeveloped acreage of a city with limited space for growth.
A new class of wealth pushes against the entrenched powers of established families, and corruption flourishes from city hall to street protection. Ethnicities battle for hard-won territory, often reliving old grudges from their countries of origin. Josh Turner, Manhattan’s first real estate titan, returns from the war minus one leg but his head filled with plans for constructing steel-girded high-rises to house the business and family men who support the city’s great spirit of enterprise: “They were New Yorkers, convinced that everywhere they went, the rest of the world would soon follow.”
From a wealthy shipping family, Josh brooks no resistance, overcoming doubts and naysayers with the dedication of the true visionary, willing to put his fortune at risk to see his plan rise from the fertile ground of his imagination. Turner marries Mollie Brannigan, the source of much joy and equal tragedy. Mollie’s aunt, a successful and fairly infamous brothel owner, is privy to many great men’s secrets and financial advice. But Eileen Brannigan carries her own baggage and becomes both Josh’s financial angel and the source of unexpected enmity from those who would steal his dream.
The characters are drawn from all walks of life: Boss Tweed, Tammany Hall, magnates and captains of industry as well as an immigrant population that yields an endless supply of cheap labor or thugs, depending on the pay and the needs of the employer. From a foreman who hails from a former Barnum and Bailey freak show, Turner finds his hardest workers and staunchest supporters, as well as gun-toting hired guards, when a Southern schemer makes a bold move to seize Turner’s lucrative and growing business.
In a heady blend of the future demanding action and marital drama, Swerling fills her novel with the failings of individuals caught in their own pasts. Aunt Eileen unwittingly unleashes a powerful enemy on Josh who directly threatens her innocent niece, but provides as well a source of needed revenue when Turner’s enterprise nearly topples under financial pressure. Power, wealth and progress are the drivers of the novel, the swirling cauldron of humanity adding flavor to a mixed brew that will birth a city from the ruins of a country divided. But New York real estate is finite, visionaries like Josh Turner endemic to time, place and opportunity. Swerling makes it all work - the good, the bad and the ugly: the names that have passed into legend in a city enshrined in power and influence, the poor still trapped in the shadows where every man dreams that one day he will rise to greatness.