Rutherfurd is a historian who writes sweeping epics, huge tomes that cover centuries in one place, showing how that place changes/develops with the people. New York spreads over about 400 years, half the time of many of his books. As usual, we see the lives of rich and poor, and our every-day heroes meet the famous figures of their day, giving us a unique look at men and women we know only from history books.
New York is strong in most areas. We see the forces that shaped lives, how Americans were thrust into the Revolutionary War even while many didn't want to fight; how treatment of African Americans and American Indians shaped our economy and the chaos caused by emancipation (the most interesting passages deal with whites panicking over how free blacks will "steal our jobs"); how immigrants set up their own sections of New York and struggled to navigate their new world. The characters are mostly interesting, and the tide of history is made exciting through their excitement.
I think the only passage Rutherfurd failed on was the Revolutionary War. While events leading to the War kept me breathless, once the War began Rutherfurd tried to put in every detail he could, resulting in choppy writing that abandoned characterization in favor of textbook-style fact listing. Thankfully, once that was over, we went back to solid storytelling.
I felt Rutherfurd glossed over a few things. While exposition made the horrible treatment of slaves and Native Americans clear, all of our heroes were enlightened, kind people who never acted cruelly themselves. A few had prejudice, but we never saw the consequences of that. Many of the men also cheated on their wives, as men of earlier times were expected to do, and again we saw little of the toll this took on women.
Still, New York pushed some boundaries with one loyalist hero during the Revolutionary War and one hero who favored slavery because his business would be hurt if blacks went free. And again, the text was clear on terrible things done to non-whites.
Overall, New York is both entertaining and instructive, what a historical novel should be. It doesn't quite reach the heights of Rutherfurd's The Forest, but it's very good, and well worth a read if you like long novels or history.
Click here for my review of Rutherfurd's 2005 novel, The Forest.
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