The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

April 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm Leave a comment

I picked up this book because I so enjoyed Savage Girl, her recently released work about a supposedly feral child that a family attempts to assimilate into New York society. The Orphanmaster is in a similar vein, in that it focuses on crimes in historical New York — this time, instead of being the gruesome murders of the supposed lovers of a young woman, it’s a series of gruesome murders of young children, whose bodies are found partially eaten.

So yeah, that already was pretty gross. Add in a mythical Native American demon, two Native Americans who are obsessed with eating human flesh, and you have kind of a racially insensitive storyline that is probably going to alienate a lot of the audience. Luckily, there’s also a beautiful female Dutch merchant, a dashing English spy, a trial, Peter Stuyvesant and more than enough sex and intrigue to go around.

Overall, though, the most striking character is the city of New York — New Amsterdam, as it was called then. Zimmerman’s background as an historian shines through here as she brings the sights and sounds and smells of the small city, a city so small that the forest is still close enough for people to hunt in. Zimmerman masterfully explains the historical context to the story, including Dutch-English relations, the role of Charles II, the inner workings of the grain market and the constant threat of being thought of as a witch if you haven’t conformed quite enough.

The characters, however, felt a little flat to me. They’re a teensy bit cliched: the woman who doesn’t fit in historical norms, meant to appeal to the female reader who believes she herself would chafe under those rules, the dashing spy who falls in love with said woman and almost throws his entire life (literally, his life) away to be with her. The jilted suitor; the big African-American bodyguard; the crazy Native American who seems to be under the power of a mythical demon. The titular Orphanmaster feels like an afterthought, a drunken old man with a lecherous bent toward young, beautiful women who also happen to be his charges…and he’s supposed to be a good guy, someone we are sort of meant to cheer for, I believe.

Overall, I think Zimmerman has shown tremendous promise in this work (her first), and she clearly was able to iron out a lot of the kinks in her next work. It’s absolutely a book worth borrowing if you enjoy seventeenth-century American history.



Entry filed under: Historical Fiction. Tags: , , , .

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