This is an absolutely mesmerizing novel set in the New Amsterdam colony circa 1663. While the British covet the lucrative territory claimed by the Dutch, Indian Wars evoke terrible memories, traders flourish, and death by smallpox still strikes terror in the hearts of settlers, Blandine van Couvering is one of a corps of successful traders. The young Dutch-American possesses an innate talent for bargaining, faithfully followed by the larger-than-life African Antony Angola, member of a small African community that keeps quietly to themselves.
The characters are pivotal to this seductive tale, as much for their representation of class and governance in the colony as for their roles in the unfolding drama: Aet Visser, the town’s official “Orphanmaster” who collects orphans from ships or those rendered parentless by tragic circumstance; the wealthiest landowners in the colony, the Hendrickson brothers, two living on a rural estate, one in Manhattan; English spy Edward Drummond, on a secret mission to locate the regicides hiding in the New World. Martyn, the youngest Hendrickson, handsome and urbane yet dissolute, reeks of corruption. Petrus Stuyvesant, director general of the colony, rules with the conceit of a monarch. Then there are “Kees” Bayard, Stuyvesant’s nephew and current suitor of the saucy and beautiful Blandine van Couvering; Kitane, an Algonquin tracker obsessed with the flesh-eating “witika,” a demon-beast apparition of Indian lore; and lastly Lightening, the Orphanmaster’s constant shadow, who slips in and out of view doing the bidding of a secret master.
Tracking the intimate activities of these characters leads to a harrowing succession of gruesome revelations as the colony is first shocked then terrified by a series of orphan abductions. The children’s bodies, if found, are scenes of bloody ritual, surrounded by symbols of the witika: “A beast went abroad in the colony. This beast had a special liking. Children.” Human or spirit, the killer moves through the colony snatching unsuspecting victims with impunity.
Blandine is approached with the disappearance of some African children. She is herself an orphan with close ties to Aet Visser, a man of often questionable appetites but a rigorous keeper of his parentless charges. Resisting the charms of the handsome Englishman Drummond, a reluctant Blandine agrees to join with the spy to stop the killings, a task that becomes more fraught with complications with each new disappearance. The list of suspects grows exponentially in a bustling colony where greed and economic opportunity jostle with poverty, superstition, rigid religious beliefs and a punitive system of justice delivered unilaterally by Stuyvesant. An epicenter of trade eyed hungrily by the advancing British, New Amsterdam brims with every level of the human condition, from wealthy Dutch merchants to ale-swigging sailors and gamblers and enterprising traders like the independent Blandine. Orphans are chattel for the wealthy who crave cheap labor.
With the commercial interests of the Dutch undermined by rumors of a bloodthirsty witika, paranoia and fanaticism bloom as panic spreads. Blandine is accused of witchery and Drummond arrested as a spy for the Crown. Meanwhile, a mythical killer feasts on the flesh of another small victim. Filled with the untrammeled energy of economic opportunity, fascinating historical detail and horror in equal measure, Zimmerman spins a story as riveting and nightmare-inducing as any Grimm’s fairy tale. Here an evil presence gleefully plucks another child from the streets, the primitive and the civilized doing a herky-jerky dance with profit and death. Beautifully written, sophisticated yet terrifying in its examination of human flaws, this stunning novel haunts long after the monster is named and innocence reclaimed.