City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling, is a well-researched book that is filled with excellent historical value and factual information concerning New Amsterdam from the 1660s and five successive generations. Swerling recreates the time periods with fluid blends, giving our imaginations a peek at what life was like during the generations that span the novel, beginning with Amsterdam, when it was first settled.
Governor Peter Stuyvesant and his family are portrayed with masterful prose, especially depicting Stuyvesant as a brutal tyrant and controlling figure during the settlement of New Amsterdam. His household structure is helped along by Lucas and Sally Turner, who emigrated from England. Their determination through Lucas’ skill as a surgeon and through Sally’s skills as an apothecary help not only the Stuyvesant family, but also help them gain respect and reputations in their field.
This eventually leads to discord between the brother and sister, causing them to drift apart due to Lucas literally selling Sally’s hand in marriage to a physician named Jacob Van der Vries, The family links continue to be broken between Lucas and Sally and are never repaired. It affects the familial lines for generations.
The book becomes quite enhanced by characters of various religions, including Jewish families, Christians of several faiths, and those of other religious practices, who have one viewpoint within their environment, unable to see beyond their spiritual border. The novel swells with culture, daily lifestyle and living. We are shown the various dwellers that inhabit the Island, and how each one must try to come to terms with the ethnic environments that surround them. From the poor and poverty stricken to thugs, from landowners to slaves, patriotic individuals to anarchists, thieves and profiteers, shrewd businessmen and those trying to survive on the streets, and so on, Swerling paints a picture of New Amsterdam beginnings through the Revolutionary War. Her prose is compelling, intriguing and riveting. For me the novel was a page-turner.
Swerling is quite the prolific writer of extremely detailed prose, especially in her telling of early surgery and early medicine and cures. I was astounded and glued to the pages due to the abundance of obvious research involved in order for her to present such detailed accountings to the reader.
I love this book on so many levels, and being a native New Yorker (although, transplanted), the story spoke to me, and filled all of my senses. The word imagery is incredible. I was amazed at the minute details that embrace the story, from how the first settlers built the city from scratch, to the harshness of life in New Amsterdam, including the crime and moral standards. We see families trying to gain control of land and people, however they can, no detail is spared in conveying the situations. From brother and sister, who have close familial ties, to separations within families, each side feeling they are correct in their anger and beliefs, each side coming out somewhat the loser for their hatred.
Swerling leads us through the bitter streets of New Amsterdam. In the end, we find that times haven’t changed that much…the diversity of the population and the religious backgrounds, fed hatred and discrimination then, as the cultural and social interplays continue to do so in modern day. It was a sad state of affairs then, and it still is in many respects, now. Although Swerling masterfully writes regarding an earlier time period, excepting for the lifestyle and what was available during the time periods presented, most societal, economical and cultural issues have not changed, only the technology has.
In my opinion, that is the lesson that Beverly Swerling tries to instill in us, within the pages of City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan. I highly recommend this historical novel to everyone. It is an amazing accomplishment, and I feel the novel is a literary must-read.
As an aside: This novel is the first of several by Beverly Swerling. I own all of her books, and have read them all. I read her works eagerly.
May 24, 2012 – 3 Sivan, 5772
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