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Friday, June 07, 2013


Take a trip to old New York and travel with it through time in Edward Rutherfurd’s New York: The Novel.  This panoramic view of my favorite city traces the lives of several families arriving as immigrants during different eras of the city’s history and coupling their own strengths with the invisible vibrancy of New York as they search for what each considers a success. 

New York: The Novel begins in New Amsterdam in 1664 with the single line paragraph “So this is freedom.” 

Freedom is the primary theme of the book.  The desire for freedom brought most immigrants, and once they tasted freedom’s deliciousness they drank deeply. They worked hard to profit from it and to build something for themselves and their families.  That universal desire is as real in the 21st century’s characters as it is the 17th century’s characters. 

The last single line paragraph is “Imagine.  Freedom.  Always.”

This is New York come full circle.

Painted on New York’s historical canvas are events that depict the bad as well as the good and the corrupt as well as the noble.  From the battles of the Revolutionary War to the attack on the World Trade Center, New York has been the scene of momentous events.  George Washington was sworn in as President here in New York City.  But there were times that disease came as regularly as summer weather and water was difficult to obtain to wash away the filth and the stench.  Interesting to me is Rutherfurd’s juxtaposition of “old money” and “new money,” and how that sociological development influenced the growth and movement of neighborhoods.  The distinction is actually a relatively recent one but definitely part of the New York psyche.  To me, everything about this city is interesting.  Cole Porter said it right: "I Happen to Like New York."

While it’s obvious that the author loves New York, he does not sugarcoat it.  His vivid descriptions of the New York Civil War draft riots probably surprise many readers by the violence, the class-consciousness, and the human cost of the war.  Filth, corruption, and greed are not bystanders to the story; they are part of it.

If you are a New Yorker—and particularly a native New Yorker—than you must be a lover of the city (how’s that for an assumption?) who enjoys recognizing the landmarks as well as the out-of-the-way places that you’ve enjoyed.  When Rutherfurd mentioned Jackson Hole, a restaurant on the East Side, a smile crossed my face as I recalled scrumptious burgers.  Unfortunately, I passed there last Sunday and the doors were shuttered.  Another chapter closed.

Rutherfurd is not without a sense of humor either, and you might chuckle at some of the names especially when you come across two intriguing characters named Vorpal and Bandersnatch.  You’ll have to peek at Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” for that one!  Most of the names, however, he has researched and do represent places of origin.

The families traced through the generations, the neighborhoods and their changes, the landmarks and their origins, and the movement and development of the city are all covered.  You’ll get involved in the individual lives of his fictional characters, but along the way you will probably learn a lot about New York City.  Since Rutherfurd takes us right through to 2008 (the book was published in 2009), you will be part of the story too.

So many of the places Rutherfurd mentions still exist, so it could be fun to visit some of them today. 

Other books, of course, have dealt with New York City’s history.  If you like this one, please consider Pete Hamill’s Forever.  It will blow you away.

New York City’s history is BIG, and so are the books about it.  My Kindle made New York: The Novel “light,” and you might consider the ebook if you are taking this traveling.  But it is a good read, and you will enjoy it.

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