Edward Rutherfurd’s comprehensive chronology of New York translates history into the stories of real people

Book of the Week: Feb 9

Emily DiSalvo, Arts and Life Editor

If you were to hand me a textbook on the history of New York City, I would hand it right back to you.

Emily DiSalvo

But “New York,” in novel form? I couldn’t put it down.

“New York: the novel” by Edward Rutherfurd takes readers through the history of one of America’s most iconic cities by telling the fictional stories of characters in different eras.

The tale starts in 1664 with the story of Dirk van Dyck, a Dutchman who impregnated a Native American woman and tried to care for his new daughter while holding his marriage together.

Through his story, we learn about the relationships between the Dutch, English and Indigenous communities in the New Amsterdam region in the late 1600s. Dyck’s Native American daughter gifts him a handmade wampum belt, which becomes an item that is passed down through the novel as each era is represented by a future generation.

The novel also gives special attention to show the plight of various groups throughout New York’s history. Several chapters are devoted to the experiences of slaves, Native Americans and women.

In the preface of the book, we learn that these historical depictions, while fictional, are based in historical fact with “few simplifications of complex historical sequence or detail.”

Therefore, this book is an amazing way to gain insight into New York City’s entire history while you feel like you are reading a pleasure novel. I learned about one Italian immigrant, Anna’s, decision to leap to her death from the ninth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory during the 1911 fire. I also learned about the sharp social divide between immigrants like hers and the wealthy family also featured in the book, the Masters.

As we follow the Master family through generations, we watch them become a family of old money, with a cottage in Newport, jobs on Wall Street and a deep-seated hatred for any ideas deemed socialist — including the organization of union workers at factories like the one where Anna died.

These stories intertwine as Anna’s brother Paulo gets rich as a bootlegger and ultimately runs into Rose Master at an underground bar. Her brother was later shot to death.

This sequence of events is symbolic for the reader because the only way Paulo, an immigrant, is able to be successful is through illegal business. His sister, who got a legal job that paid pennies, died at the workplace. However, when he collides with the Master family who comes from old money and has been established in America for decades, the readers see a parallel between the two success stories. The Master family is thriving because its foot is already in the door. Its success is legal and expected. Immigrant families did not have this luxury.

In 1929, even the well-established Master family lost all of its money in the stock market crash. The significance of the moment is realized when William Master, a Wall Street broker, asks his chauffeur to drive him to the Brooklyn Bridge. It seems as though he considers jumping — a stark parallel to the moment when Anna leapt from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

While William doesn’t jump, the audience is left to consider juxtaposition. Anna was jumping for her life. William was going to jump because of his reputation.

The book finishes with the terror attack on Sept. 11. At this point, readers have traveled through four centuries with multiple families — their kids and grandkids and great-grandkids. Like so much of the book, the part about Sept. 11, describes a tragedy — one of the most tragic in the history of the entire country.

New York is a city that never sleeps, and this book reminds readers that despite all this time being awake, we still have progress to make as a society to mend injustices and prejudices.

— Emily DiSalvo

But this book also reminded me about New York and America’s many other tragedies. Americans tortured British enemies in New York. Americans beat other Americans to death in the name of slavery in New York. People died in fires and factories and fights on the battlefield.

New York is a city that never sleeps, and this book reminds readers that despite all this time being awake, we still have progress to make as a society to mend injustices and prejudices.