Review: The Orphanmaster, by Jean Zimmerman

The Orphanmaster
by Jean Zimmerman
June 19, 2012
432 pgs
Author and historian Jean Zimmerman (Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance) makes her fiction debut with The Orphanmaster (June 19, 2012; Viking). Using her research talents, Zimmerman has created a grisly but vibrant portrait of the New Amsterdam colony (today known as Manhattan) just prior to the English takeover. 

Her story is captivating and, for the most part, her characters are likable in their own mysterious ways. She doesn't toy too much with exposition, which is nice, but this results in some cumbersome and repetitive writing in the first half of the story. She will make a point of telling us a fact one way and then, three pages later, telling us that same fact in a different way; it is almost as if she tried each of them but then couldn't decide which was better, and kept them both. But once the pacing picks up in the second half of the story, it's a lot better. The race to the conclusion is wonderfully written. 

Zimmerman's frank handle on the grotesque is rather refreshing, as is the incorporation of a religion/myth system that is by the wayside. The mythology that serves as a background to the novel is beautifully rendered; the mythical creature that purportedly wreaks havoc on the town is one of Algonquian origins and, therefore, not on the normal radar, even for me, someone who loves that stuff. 

The romance at the center of the novel is a bit clunky in its rush, and her mystery is much less well-fleshed out (oh god, that pun is not intended) than the historical aspects; it's not a very good mystery: the crimes are committed by just who you think they are, dont' bother with the breadcrumbs for this one. But it's a good story, rich in historical detail and full of interesting personalities (there's a pirate barkeep). 

As far as early New York historical fiction about missing/dead children go, The Gods of Gotham had better execution (oh god, another one), but The Orphanmaster has a better villain (and a pirate!).


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