Sal’s Book Review #2: New York: A Novel – Edward Rutherfurd

New York: A Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
Book Review by Dr. Sal Martingano, FICPA

“As a native Brooklynite baby boomer, I was intrigued by the story of New York as told by Rutherford.  It is a fascinating tale of a city that attained more notoriety than any other city in the United States.  Wow, what a story!”

I’m sure that no matter what part of the U.S. you come from, New York is still the place where people want to come to and experience or be the place that they are glad to be from. The reasons may surprise you, but this book covers them all from the city’s earliest beginnings in 1664 to the present time. If I had to describe ‘early’ New York from my perspective, it would be about politics, trade, business and immigration. Rutherford describes in great detail all that I stated plus the search for freedom and opportunity that is at the center of our nation’s history, along with a mix of battle, romance, family struggles and personal triumphs.  

I was intrigued to follow the incredible research and attention to detail that Rutherford paid telling the story of how an early Dutch settler, (Peter Minuit) in 1626, bought the island of ‘New York’ for next to nothing from a Native American tribe. From the humble beginnings as a small fishing village, to the arrival of Dutch and British merchants, the stage was set for New York to become one of the most powerful and influential cites anywhere in the world. 

This book gives a 445 year history of New York like no other. It doesn’t read like a history textbook because it is written as a novel with fictional characters interwoven into the true story of New York’s evolution. Native Americans called New York ‘Manna Hata’: “Island of many hills”. To be accurate, the book refers to New York as today’s borough of Manhattan, with its early multi ethnic descendants from Dutch, African, German, Irish, Italian, Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants.

In my book, “Boys of Brooklyn….a Time When Life Never Sucked”, I inadvertently pick up Rutherfurd’s story after the great expansion of immigrants that began to live in Brooklyn because of access to land, inexpensive housing, and better family environments- yet within close proximity to the business districts of Manhattan. Rutherfurd makes the point, as wave after wave of immigrants from different countries descended upon New York, neighborhoods changed dramatically. My neighborhood, Bensonhurst Brooklyn, was almost totally Italian and Jewish while I lived there- but found out that it had changed to Irish and Russian for many years and is now almost totally Chinese and mixed Latin American. Economic and political pressures change metropolitan cities quickly; nothing personal, it’s just reality.

One of the more amusing historical references Rutherfurd went into detail about was the incredible amount of corruption New York experienced from the very beginning. New York was not for the weak minded or overly trusting. Early Dutch and British governors descended into New York to “rip the place off”. With BIG business comes BIG money. New York is considered the financial center of the world. During those early years, nothing happened without the “favorable nod” of powerful families. World trade passed in and out of New York by rail, truck or ship. Political favors and financial payoffs became mainstream in the business districts. The Brooklyn Bridge, for example, was not built until the “bosses” that ran the city got there cut of the action. Rutherfurd goes into great detail describing political corruption and the use of powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain.

In my book, “Boys of Brooklyn….a Time When Life Never Sucked”, I describe my father’s experience finding work with the New York City Transit Authority. The Transit Authority was controlled by the Irish, sanitation was controlled by the Italians, the Jewelry district was controlled by the Jews and Tammany Hall was the “Democratic” political machine that dominated New York City commerce, unions, and all of politics. My father spoke of his luck, as an Italian, getting his job with the Irish controlled Transit System.  

Tammany Hall served as the center for graft and political corruption, perhaps most infamously under William “Boss” Tweed in the mid-19th century.  Rutherfurd gets down and dirty describing Tweed’s involvement in housing, parks, airports and all aspects of New York City business, until his conviction for stealing some $45 million from New York City taxpayers.  

As an Italian American and Brooklynite, I can appreciate Rutherfurd’s accurate references to probably the best mayor New York ever had, Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia was an Italian Catholic. His incredible career, defeating the Tammany Hall political machine and revitalizing New York into what I remembered as a young adult, is described in the “Brooklyn” chapter of Rutherfurd’ s book

Politics aside, Rutherfurd’ s account of New York takes you through the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the explosion of immigration through Ellis Island, the hardships of the Great Depression, the Wall Street Stock Market Crash, WW1 and WW2, right up to 9/11. Rutherfurd also brings the influence of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers, into the story of New York as well as the lighter side of New York sports via Yankee Stadium, Babe Ruth and others. I am grateful having experienced New York during the early boomer years, and New York: A Novel was like a “fact check” for my memory- while filing in the blanks vacated by time.

Come share the experiences and adventures of the “Boys Of Brooklyn…A Time when Life Never Sucked” available on Amazon here.

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