Once upon a time they were known as Mannahata, Breukelen, Bronck’s Farm, Staten Eylandt, and Queens, after Queen Catherine of Braganza, wife of the seventeenth-century King Charles II of England. Of course, now the five boroughs of New York City have more familiar names. But that was centuries in the making. And Edward Rutherfurd’s epic historical novel traces the city’s evolution from the earliest days of Dutch settlement at the mouth of what was then the North River—later called the Hudson—to the frenzied days of the economic crisis of 2008. Rutherfurd’s story is a pleasure to read, a multi-generational family saga that touches on many of the most memorable moments in the history of the legendary city.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
A sprawling story centered on a single family
In telling this sprawling, almost impossibly complex tale, Rutherfurd uses the device of a single family to anchor events through the centuries. The Van Dyck Master family begins in New Amsterdam in 1664, the year the small settlement becomes New York. There, Dirk van Dyck, a prosperous Dutch fur trader, glides in his canoe with a little girl downriver toward the settlement at the base of Mannahata Island. He has fallen in love with a young Algonquin woman and the girl is his daughter, Pale Feather.
New York: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd (2009) 880 pages ★★★★☆
A tale as colorful and diverse as New York City itself
At length, the little girl will give him a wampum belt bearing the legend “Father of Pale Feather” in her language. That belt will serve as the talisman of the family that descends from the union of Dirk van Dyck’s Dutch daughter and Thomas Master, an Englishman recently arrived from across the ocean. Their descendants, and the many servants, friends, lovers, and associates of the Master family, will encompass much of the ethnic diversity of the great city through the ages. German. Irish. Italian. Jewish. Puerto Rican. Rutherfurd’s story is as colorful and diverse as New York City itself.
Rutherfurd’s prose is unembellished by writerly pretensions. He relates the ebbs and flows in the lives of the Van Dyck Master family in matter-of-fact language. We observe the growth of the family’s fortune from the fur trade, merchant shipping, and banking as the Masters become Old Money at the pinnacle of the city’s society in the Gilded Age. In the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the author focuses on the family’s increasing interaction with the New Americans who have made their way to the city from the oppression and poverty of the Old World.
A cursory review of seminal events in the city’s history
Along the way, we gain perspective on some of the seminal events in New York’s history. The British attack that shifted the town’s ownership from the Dutch to the British. The wars against the Native peoples. America’s Revolutionary War, with families throughout the city dividing between Patriots and Loyalists. The growth of immigrant slums such as Five Points. The Civil War. Immigration that fuels the Industrial Age and the drive to the west. Construction of the palatial mansions of the Robber Barons. The Panic of 1907 and the stock market crash of 1929. World Wars I and II. 9/11. It’s a cursory review that omits much of the history in the interest of driving the narrative forward. But for anyone unfamiliar with how New York City became what it is today, New York: The Novel is a great place to start.
About the author
Edward Rutherfurd is the author of nine doorstopper historical novels that span centuries. He was born in Salisbury, England, in 1948, and attended the University of Cambridge and Stanford Business School. After a career in publishing and bookselling, Rutherfurd retired to write Sarum, his first novel. Published in 1987, it was a history of England covering ten thousand years. On his author website, he notes that “Over the last thirty years, Edward has divided his time between Europe and New York. He has lived on the city’s East Side, the West Side, in Westchester and Connecticut. His children attended New York schools, and he served for a time on a coop board.” (The board of an exclusive East Side apartment building plays a role in the novel.)
For related reading
I’ve also reviewed two of the author’s other historical novels:
- China (Chinese history made fun and easy in a compelling novel)
- Russka (A journey through Russian history in fiction)
You may also want to see:
- 20 most enlightening historical novels
- Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers
- Top 10 great popular novels
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.