New York: The Novel is an ambitious book. Covering nearly 350 years of New York, and by extension American history, this book is the story of about a half a dozen families living in the city at various points throughout its history: the Dutch van Dycks, English Masters, Irish O’Donnells, German Kellers, southern Italian Carusos, Jewish Adlers, and the descendants of the slave Quash, who are given the last name River. The novel opens in 1664, when New Amsterdam is bought from the Dutch by the English and becomes New York, and ends in the summer of 2009.
New York is the third of Rutherfurd’s books I’ve read, after Sarum and London. His previous two books covered all of English history, from prehistory to the present; New York only covers about 350 years. There are good and bad things about focusing on such a (relatively) short period of history. On one hand, it’s a lot easier to keep track of the generations through the years, and there’s a lot more room for character development. On the other, I really wish that Rutherfurd had covered Manhattan history during the time it was owned by the Dutch.
The focus of the novel is on the Revolution and Civil War, particularly the Draft Riots of 1863, and the financial panic of the turn of the last century. The Great Fire of 1835 is ignored, as are the (often confusing) politics of Tammany Hall, the Astor Place riots, the amalgamation of the Boroughs, the General Slocum disaster in 1904, or the building of the subways. I realize there’s a lot to cover in a novel of this scope, but some mention of these defining moments of New York history would have been nice. The longtime tension between the Irish Catholics and native-born New Yorkers is downplayed, and it seemed a little odd to me that someone like Sean O’Donnell wouldn’t have run into at least some prejudice on his way up out of the Five Points. Or that Mary O’Donnell would go from being a maid in the Masters’ house to being one of Hetty Master’s best friends in society.
On the other hand, there’s a lot of territory to cover in this 860-page novel, so it’s also easy to understand why an author might have to be picky and choosy about what to include and what to leave out. The parts of the novel that the author does cover are well-researched, especially the chapters on the Revolution, the Draft Riots, the great blizzard of 1888, the financial bits, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1910, the blackout of 1977, and 9/11.
As I’ve said, because this book covers less time that some of Rutherfurd’s other books, there’s less to keep track of in terms of family history. The Master family, for the most part, are the focal point of the novel. The story follows them, as merchants and Wall Street men, from the early 18th century to the present, so I really enjoyed following their story through the centuries. It was also interesting to witness New York growth through the years, from sleepy 17th century village to bustling 21st century metropolis. It’s also a fascinating story about the American dream, of a half a dozen families living that dream in one of the greatest cities in the world. For an excellent narrative history of New York (at least up through the 1960s), try Edward Robb Ellis’s The Epic of New York City.