New York: The Novel
My first Rutherfurd work was Sarum, his novel telling the story of the history of England by focusing on five lineages down the centuries in the area around Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. The style wasn’t anything special, even clunky at times, and with almost 9,000 years of history to cover, few characters ever felt fleshed out. It was a novel more broad than deep; it was historical fiction, almost more dramatized history text than stories with history as a backdrop. All of that can also be said of New York: the Novel which tries to encapsulate about 350 years of the history of New York City, mostly by following one family of English descent, the Masters, who early on married into one of the founding Dutch families, but as with Sarum, the effect is cumulative, and I found myself completely engaged through its 860 pages.I’m a native New Yorker, and as such so much of this book in the very beginning was irresistible. The book starts in 1664 when the population of New York City (New Amsterdam then) was only 1,500 people. I had a blast seeing all the Dutch Colonial origins of the name places around my city, some of which I knew (Wall Street, Canal Street, Harlem, Broadway, Manna hata, Bronck's land) and some not (Jonkers, Bouwerie, Pearl Street). The book, although focused on the Masters, also includes cameos by such historical figures as Peter Stuyvesant, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, J. P. Morgan, Enrico Caruso. The chapters are almost more connected short stories than one united narrative with decades sometimes passing between them. I found among the most striking the early chapters, “New York” and “New Amsterdam” (Margarethe de Groot featured there was among the strongest female characters in the book), “The Patriot” and “Vanessa” which skillfully depicted the growing divide between the colonies and Mother country, “Draft” about the 1863 Draft Riots, “Old England” where an Irish family reinvents its past.Some reviewers complain the portrait of New York City isn’t diverse enough. I think that’s a casualty of Rutherford’s formula of trying to follow the history of the city through just a few families from the beginning, and particularly putting such emphasis on the Masters. I do feel Sarum did better in interweaving the various lineages over the centuries. Early in New York there was a thread about a family of African Americans. One early chapter was even written first person from the point of view of a slave in that family, but the African American story in the novel petered out and disappears after the Civil War. Irish and German immigrants don't come into the novel until after a good third of it has passed and Italians and Jews not until well after the half-way mark. Even though Rutherfurd mentions that there had been Jewish families in the city from the days of the Dutch, the novel doesn’t really deal with Jewish life in the city before the 1950s. I felt Rutherfurd missed an opportunity not making one such family a thread in his tapestry from the beginning, though I imagine he worried that might make things too unwieldy. He could have kept the Native American thread going too. Not many of the original Lenape are still here, that's true, but until recently there was a community of Mohawks in Brooklyn for over a century; a lot of Mohawks were involved in building our skyscrapers. No Asians are even mentioned until very late in the novel--there's nothing here about Chinatown at all. Centering the narrative on one family isn’t the best way to view such a dynamic, changing city. So many New Yorkers came from somewhere else, and few of us have roots that go deep: my father was born in Baltimore, Maryland, where his family had been for ages, my mother in rural Puerto Rico. My family’s own intersection with the city would only cover the last 150 pages of this multigenerational saga. It’s in the last chapters from the 1970s on where I can speak from personal experience I found weakest, that I thought rushed and where parts didn’t ring true. It’s a small thing, but he got wrong the details about the top three public high schools students could enter through competitive examination. Hunter high school would have still been an all girls school at the time his character Juan Campos could have attended. The three magnet public high schools in the sixties and beyond a boy could attend were Stuyvesant, Bronx Science--and Brooklyn Tech, not Hunter. I went to one of those schools--much later than Rutherford’s character would have, but no I can’t imagine Puerto Ricans being discouraged from trying or attending the way Rutherfurd presented it--not by that time anyway. There was nothing about the homeless problem that hit New York City in the 80s that was such a shock to me when I first saw it in my youth. (I recently read New York City is home to 14 percent of the national homeless population.) Nothing about how AIDs hit the vibrant gay community in New York (Gays and lesbians are almost invisible in this massive novel. There's just a brief mention in one of the last chapters of someone in one of the families being gay and of the Stonewall riot.) And Rutherford had only this to say about the Dinkins years: “Mayor Koch had been succeeded by Mayor Dinkins who, as an African American, had been perceived as more sympathetic to the troubles of Harlem and the other deprived areas.” Nothing about the Crown Heights riot that took place during those years that were a watershed for the city. Rutherford devotes a chapter to the 1977 blackouts, but not one line about what was, I think, as much a shock to New Yorkers. Mind you, it’s still a bitter, still a controversial event; I realize that. Dealing with it and its repercussions in New York City would have taken guts. But what else is fiction for? There are so many sides, so many strands to New York I pity anyone trying to tell our story. There was a lot in the book (including African American aspects) of the history of the city I never knew, so even a native like me felt I learned a lot. And a lot Rutherfurd got so very right. I couldn’t help smiling when John Master tells off a Thomas Jefferson determined to move the capital that, “New York is the true capital of America. Every New Yorker knows it, and by God we always will.” What proud New Yorker would disagree? In his introduction Rutherfurd called New York “a much-loved city.” His affection and respect for my city definitely came through.