“New York: The Novel” is not just a book – it’s an experience. It draws you in and makes you a part of it.
Seldom, very seldom, when I am done with a book I am compelled to go back through it, conduct my own background research, or thumb through the book for specific passages. Rutherfurd’s New York is such a book. I am almost overwhelmed with the number of thoughts bouncing through my head as I think about it now that I am done. New York is a massive, epic novel, some 860 pages long with fairly small print; not a book you can read quickly on a plane ride or in an evening.
A few years ago I read the novel Forever by Pete Hamill. Wrapped into a story of eminently readable mystery and fantasy, it is basically a history of New York City. I loved that book, and when I was done I wanted to travel to New York and wander around the city in awe. Rutherfurd’s novel also tells the history of New York, seen through the eyes of one family and a number of other families that weave in and out of their lives, starting in the year 1664 and going all the way to 2009. Both books have the same end-objective, and both accomplish the feat in similar ways, and both overwhelmed me with richness in imagery and depth of context. Both books left me wanting more.
I had to keep reminding myself that the book was fiction. The story is so clear, so credible, and real historical events and people are woven into the fabric of the plot seamlessly.
The story starts in 1664. A Dutch settler named Dirk van Dyck lived in New Amsterdam on the very southern tip of Manhattan Island. He was engaged in the trading of furs and many other commodities, taking frequent boat trips up the Hudson River. While he had a wife and children in New Amsterdam, he also had a relationship with an Indian woman upriver and they had a child together, a girl named Pale Feather. The girl’s mother died, and her father, Dirk, only showed up for days or weeks at a time, with huge gaps in between. Van Dyck took Pale Feather with him on a trip to New Amsterdam to show her where the “white people” lived when she was about 10 or 12 years old. While being a bigamist in the literal sense, Dirk was a decent man. He took care of his family and he loved above all his Indian daughter. The two had a touching and gentle relationship, and eventually Pale Feather gave her father a gift of a wampum belt:
Wampum. Tiny slices of seashell drilled through the center and strung in strands. White from the periwinkle; purple or black from the hard-shell clam. Woven together the strands became belts, headbands, all kinds of adornments.
And currency. Among the Indians, strings of wampum paid for goods, marriage proposals, tribute. And since it represented wealth, the wise men of the tribe always made sure that wampum was distributed among the various families.
But it was more than adornment and currency. Wampum often had meaning. White signified peace and life; black meant war and death. But in wearing wampum it was also easy to make elaborate patterns and little geometric pictograms which could be read. Huge, ceremonial belts many feet long might signify important events or treaties. Holy men wore wampum bearing symbols deep in significance.
It had not taken the Dutch long to learn that they could buy fur with wampum – which they called sewan…
…What van Dyck now held in his hands was a belt. It was less than three inches wide, but six feet long, so it would go more than twice round his waist. On a background of white shells were some little geometric figures picked out in purple. The girl pointed them out proudly.
“Do you know what it says?” she asked.
“I don’t,” he confessed.
“It says” – she ran her finger along it – “Father of Pale Feather.” She smiled. “Will you wear it?”
“Always,” he promised.
Dirk met up with a renegade Bostonian named Tom Master, who was an outcast from his puritan family in Massachusetts and bent on making his mark in New Amsterdam. He became a successful trader in his own right, eventually married one of Dirk’s legitimate daughters and started a family. They named their first son Dirk, in honor of his grandfather, and thus a dynasty was born.
The book then follows the Master family through the generations. As I got to know the various Masters, I kept sinking deep into their lives, their period in history, and their undertakings. Eventually the Masters became a wealthy family of “old money” in New York, part of high society, side by side with the Astors, Vanderbilts and J.P. Morgan. During the course of history we also meet such figures as Ben Franklin, King George, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and – due to lack of space here – fast forwarding to Mayor Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
As I got to know a new Master, I always missed the older one, and eventually they faded into the past, just like in real life. I personally only knew my grandparents. I could not even tell you the names of my great-grandparents and on back.
When I was done with the book, I wanted to go back and find them all again, and reminisce, wonder what the ancestors would have thought of their offspring down the corridors of the centuries. I wanted a timeline, with each Master’s date of birth and death, the names of their wives and children. To keep track of them, I actually went back “thumbing through” the book, if you can do that with a Kindle, and put together my own timeline with names:
- Dirk van Dyck – 1664
- Tom Master – 1664
- Dirk Master – 1680
- John Master – 1723, 1758
- James Master – 1770
- Weston Master – 1776
- Frank Master – 1825, 1853
- William Master – 1860, 1880
- Charlie Master – 1901, 1917, 1953
- Gorham Master – 1950, 2009
- Gorham Master, Jr. – 2009
The dates I am showing are not dates of birth or death, but rough timelines of when they were at the height of their influence.
Dirk van Dyck had a slave named Quash, who had a son named Hudson. Hudson had a son and then a grandson named Hudson. That Hudson had a son and then another grandson named Hudson again. The various Hudsons were all good men, serving in the Master households over the decades and centuries. I learned about slavery in the American colonies directly from the points of view of the slaves themselves, their lives, their loves, their work, their dreams and their ambitions. It struck me with ferocious intensity to realize how utterly dependent early America and particularly New York City was on slavery. If it weren’t for slavery, our nation might never have formed in the early two centuries. A large portion of the wealth in New York came from the slave trade in the first place, then from the trade of the goods produced by the slaves on the plantations of the South. The entire economy of the nation was built on the platform of the institution of slavery.
I have read books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and perhaps I need to read it again, because I had forgotten how cruel and brutal slavery was (and probably still is where it exists still today). It’s not just the injustice of being caught, chained and shackled, and then sold to a plantation to do hard labor 7 days a week, 14 hours a day, for a lifetime. When slaves had children, their children, of course, were slaves. Often husbands and wives were sold separately, or their growing children were sold away from them, whenever the owner needed some cash.
Intermixed with the Master family, we also get to know the Caruso family, immigrants from Italy in the early 1900s, the O’Donnell family, who came from Ireland in the early 1800s as well as various English aristocrats.
Rutherfurd is the history teacher you always wanted and an excellent writer. His style reminds me of Hemingway. His sentences are short and succinct, his vocabulary simple, his prose very easy to read, almost simplistic at times. That is part of the book’s special charm. History comes to life not just in front of you, but in your heart, in your soul, and you feel like you are part of history.
I believe he chose the wrong title by naming it “New York: The Novel”. This was perhaps necessary to sell the book, to associate the title with the story. But when I was done reading, I sat there in reverie, and I thought that the book should be called “The Wampum Belt.” I am not going to give away any of the story, but I can tell you that the belt the little Indian girl made for her father in 1664 ties all the Masters together. If Dirk van Dyck had only known what he started, and had Gorham Master in 2009 known what the wampum belt actually was and meant, both would have been in awe.
Now that I have read this book, I am anxious to go to New York, walk the streets of southern Manhattan and feel the connection of all the teeming life, the emotions, the pain, the hopes and dreams that came before me and that I get to be part of today. Just as one Master followed the other, I am here today standing as the first in a long chain of men and women that will exist only because I exist today, and once, in the year 2400, some Haupt will stand in New York City and wonder about his deep ancestors.