Review- New York: the Novel

[amazon_link id=”0345497422″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]New York: the Novel[/amazon_link] by Edward Rutherford caught my eye while looking through the Amazon Kindle store nearly two months ago.  It is an historical fiction detailing the antiquity of New York City from the time the Dutch settled the area as New Amsterdam, to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001–nearly 350 years.  It sounded like something I could “devour” over the course of a week or so, even though it is over 800 pages in print form (I read it on my Kindle).  So I purchased it, and began reading intently.

The narrative begins with the Van Dyke’s: a well off Dutch family that traded furs and other popular goods for a living.  The author strategically places the family in different important events in the city’s early history, while still developing the characters so the reader can get to know them.  Eventually, the Van Dyke’s marry into the Master family, newly arrived English immigrants who came when the Crown took the colony from the Dutch.  From then on, the book centers on the Master family all the way to the conclusion, while introducing and developing many other protagonists: from an African-American slave family, to the Irish O’Donnell’s, then to the Italian Caruso’s, and briefly, the Jewish Adler’s.  This sounds somewhat interesting so far, doesn’t it?

Well to begin with my criticism’s, I have to mention the editing errors.  Two were obvious; however, there were a few others of which I cannot remember the exact details.  The first was when one of the Master’s and his son were travelling to along the newly constructed Erie Canal to the Niagara River.  The author declares that Lake Ontario is higher than Lake Erie; therefore, the Niagara Falls.  Sorry, Mr. Rutherford and team: it’s the other way around–Lake Erie is higher than Lake Ontario.  If geography was truly how the author describes it, then the salty water from the Atlantic would be flowing into and filling up the Great Lakes at a very rapid pace.  Now, if this was a ‘B’ book by a little known author, I could understand.  But New York is written by a well known, best-selling historian, and by a renowned publisher.

On top of that editing error, the author also declares that General Grant defeated General Lee at Gettysburg in early July, 1863.  There’s a large problem with that: General Ulysses S. Grant was taking Vicksburg, Mississippi when General Lee was defeated at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania by another general: George G. Meade.  I’ll forgive Mr. Rutherford for this one, though.  He’s British by nationality.  On top of that, he states several pages later that General Grant took Vicksburg on July 4, 1863–he is correct there.

However, as a Christian, the most disappointing aspects of New York had to do with the lack of truly moral characters.  It seemed that nearly every protagonist throughout the narrative was either unfaithful to their mate or a fornicator.  Truly, Mr. Rutherford, is this history?  America, it its early days, had a very high moral code, that I believe a large portion of the population adhered to, whether they were born-again Christians or not.  Yes, New York was–and still is–a very seedy city.  Yet, was everyone this debauched?  The closest person I saw to be truly moral was Mercy Master, during the time of the Great Awakening.  But even her and her husband’s “religious experience” was extremely shallow.  Mercy did seem to have a complete change of heart after going to hear the great George Whitefield preach.  She then invited her husband, and he reluctantly attended.  The book describes him listening to the preacher’s words, and to me, it really seemed like he might have had a true awakening in his soul.  But instead, the author goes off on some tangent that made it like he had some intellectual awakening while listening to Mr. Whitfield that Mercy was the one he wanted to marry.  So, Mr. Master listened to a sermon on hell and repentance and fell in love.  I have never read anything that absurd in a while.

My last problem with New York has to to with me getting bored with the reading.  This narrative took me nearly two months to read, and not just because it was long.  The last half seemed to drag on uncontrollably.  The only interesting portions to me in the last half (basically from the Civil War era on) had to do with the whole financial market, and its kingpin: J.P. Morgan.  Other than that, the 20th century was basically a dry telling of a well-off yuppie family that either wanted more money, or more recognition.

It saddens me somewhat, because this book, I think, had so much potential; but it falls short in my mind in so many areas.  Some of Edward Rutherford’s other books appeared interesting to me (London, The Forest, Sarum, and Russka); but now, with the taste of New York in my mouth, I will hesitate before reading another work by this author.

Other Suns

…a review of Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Growing up a Midwesterner, in and around medium-sized cities (Saginaw and Lansing, Michigan), I can always remember having black students as classmates and friends.  I recollect a time, while being lectured in second grade history class, that my teacher said most black people in America are somehow descendants of slaves.  This really perked my interest, and with my uncouth and inquisitive nature at the time, I raised my hand and asked, referring to a black classmate, “Does that mean that ______’s ancestors were slaves?”  Looking back, I remember looking at that student and seeing a somewhat embarrassed expression on their face.  This, in turn, made me even more embarrassed for asking the question.  This was my friend!  I was just beginning to learn of the story of blacks in America: their history, failures, and successes.

My mother and father trained me well, thankfully.  I never heard a slight or a joke about any other race.  We were taught that there was no difference in the color of one’s skin.  After all, God created all humans in His image.  Any other race was no less in God’s image.

In high school and college, I worked in ministries which took me into neighborhoods that were predominately African-American.  From the south-side of Lansing to nearly all of Gary, Indiana, black families were a part of my prayer life and ministry to God.  I’m not sure what exactly sparked my mind to be interested in the demographics and history of cities like Gary and Chicago, but I began to research here and there just why many cities had gone from dazzling to dilapidated in the course of just a generation.  When I heard of Isabel Wilkerson’s new work, The Warmth of Other Suns, I knew that I would enjoy delving into it, but hesitated at first because of one reason: usually books on African-American history are slanted to a liberal world-view.  Even a just a balanced account, I thought, would suffice.  Eventually, I surrendered my preconceptions, and bought it for my Kindle.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a detailed historical narrative of the immense migrations of blacks from the rural and agricultural south to the urban and industrial north from 1915-1975.  Isabel Wilkerson focuses on three individuals, from three different states, and from three different waves of the migration.  Ida Mae Gladney and her sharecropping  husband fled Mississippi to settle in Chicago in the 1930’s.  George Starling and his wife fled threats of lynchings in central Florida for New York City in the 1940’s.  And Robert Foster left the underwhelming prospects of being a colored doctor in a highly segregated Louisiana town to the promising prospects of Los Angeles.  Throughout the narrative, the larger history of the Great Migration is filled in, providing a depth that does not leave the reader in the dark concerning the whole of that time period.

The author tells each individual’s story vividly, without bogging the narrative down with useless detail.  The environment of the Jim Crow Laws is vividly portrayed.  The culture of southern blacks is captured perfectly: from their food to their southern-black vernacular –though at first the dialog takes some getting used to, due to frequent unfamiliar contractions and expressions!  The reader also feels a real acquaintance to each protagonist, wanting them to succeed, while also being able to see flaws and mistakes each made.

For the most part, the author does a good job of generalizing unwelcome details, but in an instance or two, she describes things a little too much for the Christian mind, including some profanity.  As a whole however, the book is very modest.  As for the overall political slant of the book, I would say that it is legitimately balanced: this coming from a very conservative perspective.  The author is truly artful in her journalism–presenting all the points of view, and allowing the reader to make his or her own judgments.  I can say, from my point of view, that The Warmth of Other Suns is balanced and unbiased.

For any lover of twentieth century history, The Warmth of Other Suns is a treasure.  For me, it gave new insight into the the black culture, the spite expressed on both sides, and the satisfaction that the migrants gained from being able to provide a good upbringing for their children, whether they accepted it or not.

History, Geography, and Mr. Speckhals

237365683_oEver since I can remember, I have loved learning about the past.  It all started as a little five year old boy watching a cartoon movie I vaguely remember called The Rescuers Down Under.  I first realized my love for history and geography then, and specifically during a certain part where they showed a world map and a few places an urgent message traveled to.  I had a Fisher Price Globe that lit up and everything–on it I followed that part of the movie when the message traveled.  It was on that globe that I began to learn about all of the places on it–starting with oceans and continents, then going into countries, mountains, cities, and landmarks.  Then my parents got me my first world atlas as a gift, and a road atlas too.  You may think I’m weird–getting a road atlas as an eight-year-old, but there’s something in me that enjoys studying maps and knowing exactly where I’m at.

As a first grader, I had my first history class.  It was there that I learned about what was in those places I had studied on the map.  I think it started with American history, then eventually world history.  I just loved learning about the history of the world.  When I started to attend a Christian school as a second grader, my teachers from then on taught about how God was the one who shaped history, and the Life of Christ was the very focal point of history.  Specifically, these are my favorite periods and subjects of history:

  • Biblical times
  • Ancient Near-eastern empires
  • Ancient Greece
  • The Crusades
  • Colonial Americas
  • Crimean War
  • Civil War
  • British Colonialism
  • The Second World War
  • The Arab-Israeli Wars (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1981)
  • Collapse of the Soviet Union

Then there are a few things that I wish I knew more about:

  • Ancient Egypt
  • The Indian Subcontinent
  • Oriental History in general
  • Ancient Africa
  • South American anti-colonialism
  • European history from about 1550-1800
  • French “Revolution”

Some people despise history.  That is up to them, I guess–their loss!  I am not particularly fond of mathematics or penmanship either, though both are necessary.  This is a small excerpt from a paper I wrote in college about the importance of history in education:

Does history matter?  This is a question of many students in today’s modern educational realm.  Traditionally, some form of historical education is taught from kindergarten up into a student’s latter secondary school years.  Yet many young people fail to realize this subject’s vast importance in a curriculum; translating into an indifference toward history, which later results in an adult ignorant of the past.  A view of the past shapes every man’s life.  As a Christian, one should have a thirst for some history as a part of education.  The lack of appreciation toward history indicates some ingratitude toward the Bible, because so much of it is historical.  From history, one can obtain a proper worldview of the past, thereby resulting in a proper view of the present.  McClay (1995) discusses the importance of history this way: “Historical consciousness means learning to appropriate into a biblical moral imagination, learning to be guided by it and the distilled memory of others: the stories we never can experience firsthand.”


And I write this article to say this: I can’t wait until all of my history books are here with us at our new home!  You see, they have been in storage at my parents house since we moved to Pennsylvania, and we didn’t think we would have room to bring them.  Alas though, they will be here when my family comes for Thanksgiving.  A big thank you to my parents for wanting to bring them!  I have most of my devotional and theological books; but literature, geography, and history I am lacking.  We’re also looking forward to seeing Andrea’s family here during Christmastime–especially her dad, who will love to see the US Mint in Philadelphia, Independence Hall, and of course his daughter and son-in-law!