Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Sunday, July 3, 2011

'City of Dreams' by William Martin (2010)

After a short detour to discover David Nevin, I returned to William Martin and his danger-is-my middle-name antiquarian Peter Fallon. This time, however, Fallon leaves his native Boston for the bright lights of New York City. City of Dreams follows Peter and fiancée Evangeline as they track down a long-lost stash of government scrip - called "New Emission Money" - from the Revolutionary War. Of course, a variety of other characters are also looking for the money; for reasons good, bad and ambiguous. This plot line gives City of Dreams an action-thriller movie feel, a bit like National Treasure, perhaps.

Where Cape Cod centered on a place and The Lost Constitution focused on a document, City of Dreams does both. A similarity with both earlier Martin novels is the way the story jumps back and forth from present to past, in alternating chapters. The action all takes place in NYC but skips through the city's history, stopping infrequently and briefly to follow the movements of the missing bills. A comparison with Edward Rutherfurd's beefy New York: A Novel finds very few historical events or characters in common. Indeed, there is much less history overall and much more action to be found in City of Dreams. Partly, that's because there's a substantial contemporary plotline running throughout - a commentary on the history and philosophy of the national debt. When Martin was planning this novel, one suspects that the national debt angle came first, followed by the historical story of the financial industry and the debt; which of course was and is centered in New York.

Historical characters chosen for inclusion in the story also tend to have something to do with that history: Alexander Hamilton and J. P. Morgan are the most prominent. The main fictional characters in the historical sections belong to several generations of the same family, imparting a little of the Michener/Rutherfurd feel.

So, on to the five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?

Not so much this time, as I've already read several other books covering the same historical turf. The novel did, however, introduce me to Haym Solomon, a fascinating character who, along with Robert Morris, found the money to finance the American Revolution. Score = 3

  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?

Yes. In the end, however, I felt that the treatment of the country's financial history was pretty shallow. It is a novel, of course, but some of the later events seemed to be chosen more for dramatic effect than historical relevance. For instance, two of the modern fictional characters are inside one of the World Trade Center towers when the planes hit on September 11, 2001. They both survive, and the presumed death of one contributes to her role in the plot later on, but the incident has no relation to the story of the new Emission Money and/or the national debt. A talented writer like Martin could have made much more of the financial narrative by including a little history of the Federal Reserve or the Glass-Steagal Act. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?

Once again, Martin gets high marks for historical accuracy. For instance, the novel's account of New York City events during 1775 and 1776 squares with the straight history of Divided Loyalties, by Richard M. Ketchum. As noted above, my quibbles have to do with quantity, not quality. Score = 3

  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?

Yes - but there aren't many, and those who appear are just cameos, except for a bit of Hamilton and the remarkable Haym Solomon. Score = 3

  1. Would I read another novel by this author, continuing in this historical period, with these characters (or new ones)?

Definitely. I'm still planning to read Citizen Washington, as soon as the hardcover remainders show up at Amazon (my library doesn't have it yet, so I'll buy a discounted hardcover and donate it when I'm done - as I did with City of Dreams). Score = 4.

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