Once again, Rutherfurd (Sarum, London, The Rebels of Ireland) comes out of the gate with an ambitious novel, in this case tackling three hundred and fifty years of New York’s colorful city, the cornerstone of the evolution of the United States and a critical element in defining this country.
It all begins in a tiny Indian fishing village on the island of Mannahatan with the arrival of Dutch settlers who see opportunity to colonize and increase their fortunes at the cost of the vast wilderness before them. They bring with them their arrogance and ambition, aristocratic governors and educated merchants determined to wrest the future from this fertile place. Followed by the avaricious British, it isn’t long before taxation riles the population and resistance simmers.
We are witnessing the birth of a new country, with all its trials, mistakes and bloodshed, the formation of a country built on freedom and the dynamic city that will have such an impact on the world. As in previous novels, New York comes to life through the individual dramas of a few select families, from rich to poor and all ethnicities and social strata, black, white, Indian and immigrant. There are the Dutch, English, Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, including the descendants of a slave, Quash, as that family takes on the name of Rivers, the Van Dycks, the Kellers, the Masters, the O’Donnells, etc.
Perhaps more difficult in such a project is choosing which events to highlight as the years pass, from trading on the Hudson River to the Draft Riots to the Civil War to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when the novel ends. These are the stories of each family from one generation to another, from the simpler times of early settlement to the cacophonous era of blaring horns and traffic jams, the quiet of a fishing village in the wilderness to the massive victory parade at the conclusion of World War II.
We walk through every generation with these families, experiencing the small dramas that link one to another as society grows and flourishes with all the vices that accompany the evolution of society. And New York is at the heart of it all, from George Washington to Babe Ruth, from the traders on the Hudson River to the politics of Tammany Hall, from the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire to the blizzard of 1888, events that shape the direction of the city, political, financial and personal.
Storytelling and historical details merge as, decade by decade, the Masters, Van Dycks and the Rivers, personify the evolution of this dynamic city, from the revolutionary War to the Civil War, Five Points and Ellis Island, the Empire State Building and the coming of the Millennium, the Roaring ‘20s and the Gilded Age, characters who rise and fall with the city’s fortunes. It is not hard to imagine this vast cast of characters as they tread across the years, from early settlers to the corruption of Tammany Hall or the collective agony on September 11 and the destruction of the Twin Towers.
Rutherfurd tells this enormous story in a fluid arc, the images of the past fading with under the assault of a growing society with its demands and frustrations, wars and triumphs, a wild mix of personalities come together in the Big Apple.