New York

by Edward Rutherfurd

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

New York: A Novel, by Edward Rutherfurd New York is a sweeping panorama of New York City history in the grand style of James A. Michener, but also something more interesting. The characters, with few exceptions, are drawn with genuine depth; the plot offers numerous surprising twists; and a theme of real weight builds to a moving conclusion. It opens in 1664 with a Dutch immigrant and the half-Indian daughter he loves but does not acknowledge for fear of offending his proud wife.

Manhattan was founded on a misunderstanding. What the Indians considered a gift made "for the right to share their hunting grounds for a season or two," the Europeans considered the price for "buying the land in perpetuity." Dirk van Dyck and Tom Master are heirs to the city's original sin, but they and their descendants are sympathetic, many-faceted human beings: loving and prejudiced, generous and ambitious, part of a community in which the desirability of wealth is taken for granted.

Almost a third of the novel covers the Revolutionary War, beginning with the early tensions between England and the Colonies. New York was under British rule during much of the War, its merchant families mostly loyal to the Crown. The fictional Master family is divided, so both loyalist and patriot viewpoints are explored with perceptive sympathy, though without moral blinders. Rutherfurd's heart clearly lies with the American effort to forge a more democratic society.

The story of the wealthy Master family encompasses that of other New Yorkers descended from Dutch, African, German, Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Puerto Rican immigrants. Naturally, such notable events as the Civil War draft riots and the 1929 stock market crash are explored—but it's typical of Rutherfurd's approach to portray the 1977 electrical blackout while only alluding to the more easily stereotyped 1965 blackout. The disastrous 1911 Triangle factory fire in which 146 garment workers died, mostly young immigrant women, poignantly foreshadows September 11, 2001—and reminds readers of the city's persistence in turning tragedy to strength. (2009, 880 pages)

More about New York at Powell's Books or

Interview with author Edward Rutherfurd

Other historical novels about New York City:

City of Dreams by Beverly Swerling (2001). More info

Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney (2006). More info

Dragonwyck by Anya Seton (1944). More info


Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City by Eric W. Sanderson (2009). More info

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto (2004). More info

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows (1998). More info

The Epic of New York City by Edward Robb Ellis (1990). More info

At the Movies:

New York, a documentary featuring a panoramic history of the city on 8 DVDs.

Gangs of New York, the 2002 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Daniel Day-Lewis Leonardo DiCaprio, about nineteenth-century gang warfare.


The Mannahatta Project a website about a project to map Manhattan Island in the early seventeenth century before the city developed.

An Interactive Timeline of the history of New York City.

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