New York: The Novel

Spring 2010 CSANews Issue 74  |  Posted date : May 27, 2010.Back to list

New York: The Novel
By Edward Rutherfurd, Doubleday, $39.95, 860 pages

For Edward Rutherfurd fans, if you enjoyed Sarum, Russka and London, you'll love New York: The Novel... All 860 pages of it.

Unlike his other novels, which start in prehistory, this epic begins in New Amsterdam, a Dutch settlement in 1664, on the narrow island territory called Manhatten (formerly Manna hatta by the Manates Indians).

We start off with the Van Dyck family but then, as the Dutch are overrun by the English and New Amsterdam becomes New York, we meet the English Thomas Master, whose descendants carry the main thread of this tumultuous saga. New York grows from a sleepy 17th-century village into the present vibrant 21st-century metropolis. Rutherfurd adds some other families to engage with the true historical figures of the day: The Irish O'Donnells, Italian Carusos, German Kellers, Jewish Adlers and the descendants of Thomas Master's slave Quash (later surnamed River).

Through these families, we experience the American Revolution, the Civil War, the draft riots of 1863, several financial panics, world wars, political campaigns and painfully, the horrors of 9-11.

As always, Rutherfurd weaves a tapestry of fictional and true characters. For example, a Caruso daughter was a seamstress locked in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory that burned down in 1911. It's written so evocatively that you can almost feel the flames and the panic.

As well as the history, Rutherfurd shares the People Magazine gossip and the trivia of the day. We meet the aristocratic English governor who liked to wear women's clothes. We visit the Really Rich...John Jacob Astor, J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Mrs. Astor and the 400 families in New York who only socialize with each other.

"The people who ran the city, whether they bribed an English governor or raised all the money for good causes, were always the rich." People who left the Union Club "because they were letting in too many of the wrong sort" formed the Knickerbocker Club. It has always been about money!

Rutherfurd's fictional families interact with many of the most memorable names in American history, i.e. Ben Franklin, George Washington, John Adams and Abraham Lincoln. The families show up wherever the action is. An O'Donnell and a Keller were in the Civil War; the Carusos played a major part in the speakeasy scene of the 20s and there was an Adler in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

But throughout the book, the main focus is on the Master family. Gorham Master has the last word in the summer of 2009. He had been strolling through the Strawberry Fields garden in Central Park and thinking about the future Freedom Tower being built on the site of the Sept. 11th tragedy. Taken together, they contained the two words that said it all about this city. "Imagine, said the garden, Freedom said the tower. Imagine! Freedom! That was the spirit, the message of this city he loved."

Rutherfurd is a skilled storyteller and New York: The Novel is a compelling read. Give yourself lots of time to read it, though. I had difficulty putting it down.

Willa McLean is a freelance writer who lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

Related links
Book Review - Winter 2009
Book Review - Fall 2009