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Review: The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto

In The Island at the Center of the World, Russell Shorto narrates the forgotten story of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, which covered what is now New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and a bit of Pennsylvania; and the town of New Amsterdam specifically. Beginning with the day that Henry Hudson sailed up the river that was later named after him (almost exactly 400 years ago to the day), to the sale of New Amsterdam to the English, this book is a social and political history covering the story of the early modern world. We meet a number of 17th century characters: Adriaen Van der Donck, the lawyer (for whom Yonkers, NY is named, after “jonker,” or landed gentleman, which Van der Donck styled himself as); Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam’s peglegged governor; and Willem Kieft, the governor who was accused of mismanagement.

In this book, Shorto, who draws from documents being translated by Charles Gehring at the New York State Library in Albany, dispels the myth that colonial America began with the English. His writing style is engaging, and this is an intriguing look into early American history. I was fascinated by how much the Dutch have contributed to the American character and way of life. The Dutch in the mid-17th century were the most liberal in Europe, well-known for being tolerant of other cultures and religions, and for allowing children to behave as children do today (in England, as a contrast, children were dressed as adults and expected to behave the same way).

I was also fascinated by the irony of this: Manhattan was bought by the Dutch from the natives for the equivalent of 60 guilders in goods. In the mid-nineteenth century, a historian estimated that that equated to $24—which in today’s world would probably be about $1500—or les than the cost to rent a small studio apartment in Manhattan (it seems like the Dutch got a better deal in terms of real estate than modern New Yorkers do). Its nearly impossible for the 21st century person to imagine what Manhattan was like in the days when most of the island was wilderness, which absorbed me completely.

Also reviewed by: Bookslut


Anonymous said…
I have never heard much about the Dutch. It's interesting what gets left out of American History in school.
Terri B. said…
This is something which I don't know much about, but it sounds very interesting. I still remember descriptions of rural Manhattan in an Edith Wharton novel. It fascinated me to imagine Manhattan as countryside.
Heather J. said…
My mom listened to this on CD and said it was excellent. She grew up in Brooklyn, New York and was familiar with many of the places mentioned in the book. She said that both the writing and narration were excellent. It's definitely on my TBR list!
Amanda said…
My husband just read this book and I've been meaning to pick it up as well. We live in Inwood (the northernmost neighborhood on Manhattan Island) and there's a nice huge Inwood Hill Park which reminds me of the wilderness this whole area used to be. There's a plaque there which states it's the spot where supposedly that sale of land happened between the Dutch and the Indians. I'm excited to learn, like Yonkers, what all these oddly named places around here are named after. Thanks for the review!
Jaimie said…
American history of this period fascinates me. Thanks for the great review!

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