City of Orphans

“People are freer in America.  But there are more tears.”

The sentence above, a quote by Mama Geless, a Danish immigrant in the book City of Orphans. does a nice job of summarizing the theme of this story.  Unintentionally, I have been reading books with similar themes lately including Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (another coming of age novel set in New York City) and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (another novel dealing with children forced to make grown up decisions). 

Also, unitentionally, I find myself reading a crime novel.  This novel was selected for our monthly staff book discussion by our Youth Librarian because it fit the category of Historical Fiction.  However, it does fit my definition of a crime novel and therefore gave me an entry into crime writing for the younger market.

Set in 1893 in New York City, the novel tells the story of Maks Geless, a thirteen year old boy who has left school to sell newspapers (a newsie) in order to help his family survive the economic depression of the times.  Papa and sister Agnes (a tuberculosis sufferer) work in a shoe factory while older sister Emma has a job as a maid in the brand new Waldorf Hotel.  When she is accused of the theft of a gold watch and tossed into The Tombs, Maks takes action to get her released.

The contrast between the Geless’ family poverty and their struggles to hold multiple jobs just to survive is nicely contrasted with the elegance of the Waldorf where bell boys will retrieve your glasses from your hotel room if you forgot them.  Even more sinister, people who are not of the right ilk will be denied entry to the hotel at all, tossed out by the same hotel security who accused Emma of her crime.

In his desperate search for affordable allies, Maks turns to the very interesting Dickensian character Bartleby Donck, a former Pinkerton who now lives in poverty as a tuberculosis sufferer, writing boy detective stories for the papers to survive.  Another touch from that writing style is Bruno, the head tough of the Pub Uglies Gang, a group of boys being used to attack the newsies in order to disrupt distribution of the paper and the message it carries.

The central figure in the whole story that unites it all is a homeless girl name Willa who rises up one day in an alley to defend Maks from an attack.  That earns her his respect, a place in the Geless family and a role in all the future developments in the plot.  The pathos that surrounds this character is a big part of the atmosphere of the book.

In the Author’s Notes, Avi says, “It was a time of great wealth, great poverty, widespread crime, great charity, and major political reform.”  Hmmm, how familiar does that sound?

Ultimately, I may not have the background to say with authority that this book would work as a discussion title for younger readers.  But as an adult reader, I enjoyed the story and believe it does have enough thematic content to create questions for a discussion.  One of the challenges of the novel is it is written in present tense in a colloquial voice and occasionally shifts away from Maks perspective.  I would give it a try if for no other reason that it is just a good story to read in these hard times.



About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

1 Comment on "City of Orphans"

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  1.' Shelley says:

    That’s a fabulous quote.

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