City of Orphans
Richard Jackson Books
Simon & Schuster, 2011
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What’s this book about?
The streets of 1893 New York are full of life: crowded, filthy, dangerous. If you are a newsboy like thirteen-year-old Maks Geless, you need to watch out for Bruno, leader of the Plug Ugly Gang whose shadowy, sinister boss is plotting to take control of all the newsies on the lower East Side.
With Bruno’s boys in fierce pursuit, Maks discovers Willa, a strange girl who lives alone in an alley. It is she, stick in hand, who fights off the Plug Uglies—but further dangers await.
Maks must find a way to free his sister Emma from The Tombs, the city jail where she has been imprisoned for stealing a watch at the glamorous new Waldorf Hotel. Maks, believing her innocent, has only four days to prove it. Fortunately, there is Bartleby Donck, the eccentric lawyer (among other employments) to guide Maks and Willa in the art of detection.
Against a backdrop alive with the sights and sounds of tenement New York, Maks, as boy detective, must confront a teeming world of wealth and crime, while struggling against powerful forces threatening new immigrants and the fabric of family love.
Story Behind the Story
Like millions of Americans, my forebears came from Europe, landed on Ellis Island, and went on to New York City, where they stayed. One of the places they stayed was New York City’s Lower East Side. This was a time when the city had some thirty daily newspapers that were not written in the English language. Amazingly enough, much of the tenement architecture, has remained in place. There is even an existing, wonderful Tenement Museum, where I saw and learned a great deal, and which helped me write my novel, City of Orphans, a novel about immigrant life in New York, at the end of the 19th Century.
Awards and Recognition
- Colorado Book Awards Finalist
- Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award Master List (VT)
- ILA Teachers’ Choices
- Kirkus Best Children’s Book
- Nutmeg Book Award Nominee (CT)
- Young Hoosier Book Award Nominee (IN)
“An immigrant family tries to survive crime, poverty and corruption in 1893 New York City.
“Earning enough money to cover the rent and basic needs in this year of economic panic is an endless struggle for every member of the family. Every penny counts, even the eight cents daily profit 13-year-old Maks earns by selling newspapers. Maks also must cope with violent attacks by a street gang and its vicious leader, who in turn is being manipulated by someone even more powerful. Now Maks’ sister has been wrongly arrested for stealing a watch at her job in the glamorous Waldorf Hotel and is in the notorious Tombs prison awaiting trial. How will they prove her innocence? Maks finds help and friendship from Willa, a homeless street urchin, and Bartleby Donck, an eccentric lawyer. Avi’s vivid recreation of the sights and sounds of that time and place is spot on, masterfully weaving accurate historical details with Maks’ experiences as he encounters the city of sunshine and shadow. An omniscient narrator speaks directly to readers, establishing an immediacy that allows them to feel the characters’ fears and worries and hopes.
“Heroic deeds, narrow escapes, dastardly villains, amazing coincidences and a family rich in love and hope are all part of an intricate and endlessly entertaining adventure. Terrific!” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)
“Thirteen-year-old Maks Geless, the oldest son of Danish immigrants, makes eight cents a day hawking The World on Manhattan street corners in 1893. Newbery Medalist Avi tells his story in a vibrant, unsophisticated, present-tense voice (a typical chapter begins, “Okay, now it’s the next day—Tuesday”), and it’s a hard life. Maks’s sister Agnes has TB, the shoe factory where Agnes and Mr. Geless work is suspending operations, and the grocer and landlord want their accounts paid. Then Maks’s oldest sister, Emma, is accused of stealing from a guest at the Waldorf Hotel, where she is a maid. Amid this strife, the good-hearted Gelesses take in Willa, a homeless girl who saved Maks from a street gang. Maks and Willa must prove Emma’s innocence, with the help of an odd, possibly dying detective (he’s coughing up blood, too). The contrasts among Maks’s family’s squalid tenement existence; Emma’s incarceration in the Tombs, the city’s infamous prison; and the splendor of the Waldorf bring a stark portrait of 19th-century society to a terrifically exciting read, with Ruth’s fine pencil portraits adding to the overall appeal).” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)
“Dickensian street action comes to New York’s Lower East Side in this gripping story, set in 1893, of newsboy Maks, 13, who feels “hungry twenty-five hours a day.” After rescuing a filthy, homeless girl, Willa, Maks takes her to the crowded tenement he shares with his struggling Danish immigrant family. Pursued by Bruno, the leader of the Plug Ugly street gang, Maks is desperate to save his sister, Emma, who was imprisoned after being falsely accused of stealing a watch from the Waldorf Hotel, where she worked as a cleaner. Just as compelling as the fast-moving plot’s twists and turns is the story’s social realism, brought home by the contrasts between the overcrowded, unsanitary slums (“No water, gas, electricity”) and the luxurious Waldorf. Then there are the unspeakable conditions in prison, where, even as a prisoner, Emma must pay for food. Avi writes in an immediate, third-person, present-tense voice, mostly from Maks’ colloquial viewpoint (“He’s full of heartache, but no one is seeing it”), with occasional switches to Willa and to the desperate young gangster leader. Threading together the drama are tense mysteries: Is Willa really an orphan? Who stole the watch? A riveting historical novel.” (Booklist, starred review)