Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Monday, November 5, 2012

New York the Novel by Edward Rutherford

Edward Rutherford has been writing historical sagas for over twenty years but I just discovered him this summer with New York, the Novel. (2009) After a passionate reading, I wanted heartily to recommend but hesitated—would most readers consider it “old news”?  However, when Hurricane Sandy recently ravaged the East Coast, I felt compelled to do the review as it certainly wrote another chapter in the history of this amazing American city from 1664 to the year 2009.

Rutherford, a disciple of James Michener, spins an 800-page fictional account of primarily one family, the English Masters and their American born descendents, set amidst the background of actual historical events and real people.  You’ll recognize many names from politics to social to cultural, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Mrs. Astor, the Titanic’s JP Morgan, Boss Tweed, Ben Franklin and Babe Ruth, to name a few.

In a 2009 interview the author says,  “...but it’s the ordinary people I discover in my research—Irish laborers, society ladies, African slaves and sweatshop workers—whose lives move me most and who provide so many of my plots and characters.”   

The story begins in 1664 in Governor Stuyvesant’s Dutch colony New Amsterdam where we first encounter Van Dyke, a wealthy Dutchman, who while trading with the Algonquins  fathers the girl, Pale Feather.  It is here too that we learn the first of interesting tidbits scattered throughout the story in the development of our great nation. For example, why “wampum” was so invaluable in trading and the role felt hats played in our early commerce.  The soft pelt under the beaver’s outer fur was made into felt and felt hats were the height of fashion.  As Van Dyke muses, “there was a certain madness to it....that a whole colony, an empire could be founded, men risk their lives and kill in turn, all on account of a fashionable hat.”  It is this type of detail (and that’s only on page fifteen) throughout the book  (only 845 pages to go) that I found so interesting.  As for the valuable wampum, the belt little Pale Feather makes for her father is passed down through the generations and its destiny is sealed by the end of the book in a tender way that only a master storyteller can weave.

With the British invasion of New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony is lost to the British and given the name of New York, after the Duke of York.   Van Dyke’s daughter Clara marries an American born John Masters and so begins the Master saga. The next 250 pages bring to life the American Revolution where father John Master and son James Master are opposed as Loyalist and Patriot.   “November 25, 1783, at the head of eight hundred Continental troops, George Washington came peacefully down the old Indian trail from the village of Harlem and entered the city of New York.’  As they pass the Master home which survived the fire of 1776, John Master says to his grandson, Weston, “ My dear grandson, the world I knew is turned upside down. So let’s drink to the new one.”

Then comes the emergence of the city as a great trading and financial center, the Gilded Age following the Civil War, the explosion of immigration, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, World War II, the near-demise of the city in the 70’s and it’s rebirth in the 90’s.  And of course, the attacks on the World Trade Center. Through it all, there is the family drama of the Masters –their successes and failures and human frailties.  It is also the story of families representing the diversity of the city:  the Carusos, (Italians) the O’Donnells (Irish), Quash and Hudson, (slaves), Keller and Adler (German).

Some critics of the book say that in spite of these diverse groups interwoven into the story, New York is mainly the story of conservative well-off whites,  (the Masters) often opportunists, with not enough emphasis on the minority populations’ contribution to the city’s development.  Another criticism is that some important historical events were left out. 

My defense of the author is that this IS a work of fiction in an accurate historical setting and is his choice of what events serve the story best.   To cover 400 years in 800 pages with the human element interest one would have to be somewhat selective of what to embellish to make for an interesting story.  To list every happening like a laundry list or worse yet, like a history textbook, would hardly keep us turning the pages.  Like Michener, Rutherford makes us care about the effect of history on the lives of people...both as individuals and society as a whole.

In the preface Rutherford tells us, “All the families whose fortunes the stories follow are fictional...I have tried to set them amongst people and events that did exist, or might have done.”

For Arizonians who hail from New York, I think it will be a joyful homecoming to experience the origins of familiar landmarks and settings, such as Coney Island, Staten Island, Central Park, particularly the Strawberry Fields, the Dakota Hotel, or the Vanderbilt mansion.  As an infrequent visitor I want to go again with this book in hand and visit these sights with a greater appreciation of their history and evolution. If you lived back east this is the perfect book to curl up with beside the fireplace on a snowy day.  Well, in this case many snowy days as its bulk is no easy feat, but it beckons you like returning to a family and place you now know well.
If you get the paper version, you’ll have the benefit of several maps showing Old New York, Early Manhattan, 19th and 20th Century New York and the current city region.

If English-born Rutherford’s instruction to his children is any indication of how he feels about New York City, we can only assume his love.  Upon his death he requests his ashes to be scattered in the Hudson River.

New York, the Novel received the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction in 2010.  If you become a fan of Rutherford’s writing style, you’ll be happy to know he has written seven previous historical sagas:  Paris, London, Saurm, Forest (both of England), Russka, and the Dublin Saga with The Princes of Ireland and The Rebels of Ireland.

I find it ironic that not only does the timing of this review tie in with Hurricane Sandy but with our country’s election for our next President. For if this book has a theme, the clue is in the first and last sentence of the novel. Both contain the word “freedom”.  His book, besides being a good story, gives us a great sense of what was sacrificed through the years for this precious freedom that is our right today.