Megacities abound in today’s world. With approximately 20 million people, the New York City metropolitan area ranks 15th in the world by some accounts. (The nine largest cities are all in Asia.) It’s surprising, then, to think about New York barely more than two-and-a-half centuries ago as a scrappy little Dutch-English town housing just 7,000 people crowded together on the southern tip of the island then called Mannahatta. Francis Spufford’s charming historical novel, Golden Hill, is set at that time, three decades before the American Revolution.
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Richard Smith is “a youth of about four-and-twenty dressed in plain green, wearing his own hair in short rust-brown curls, smiling in a fashion that crinkled the freckles across his nose.” He’s a mysterious young man. It’s November 1st, 1746. He has arrived in New York from London bearing a letter of credit for the then astounding sum of one thousand pounds sterling, equivalent to approximately a quarter-million 2018 dollars. Smith refuses to explain why he has come to New York or how he plans to use the money. In response, the merchant who’s obligated to honor Smith’s letter refuses to do so without written confirmation from London. Smith is forced to wait for six weeks until the next ship arrives with the mail.
When his purse is stolen immediately after he has presented the letter, Smith is doubly in trouble: known throughout the town as a wealthy man but suspected of fraud by everyone who matters. Somehow, he must hold out until the mail arrives. Only then will he have the funds he needs to execute some mysterious mission on Christmas Day.
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York by Francis Spufford (2017) 321 pages ★★★★☆
Golden Hill follows Smith’s misadventures during the last two months of 1746. Along the way, he is accused of fraud from all sides, thrown into prison when the proof of his honesty doesn’t arrive on schedule, chased by a drunken mob intent on killing him, drawn into a duel with swords, and tried for murder. Somehow, the young man survives all this and Christmas eventually comes. But only in the final pages of the novel do we learn the nature of his mission. Getting there is a lot of fun. Spufford’s writing style evokes the 18th century, and his ear for dialogue is unexcelled.
British author Francis Spufford has written six nonfiction books, winning several awards in the process. Golden Hill is his first novel. It’s also an award-winner.
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