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December 26, 2009

City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling

Cooped up with the Swine Flu (pardon me – H1N1) has one particular silver lining: I have found myself inundated with nothing but ample time to stick my nose in one book after another. The time goes by much faster curled up in bed with a hot cup of tea and a good book. By some great stroke of luck, the day before fully coming down with this nasty bug, my parents had given me a BAG of novels they were finished with; therefore, I haven’t been short of anything to read the last few days.

City of Dreams: A Novel of Nieuw Amsterdam and Early Manhattan by Beverly Swerling  came highly recommended by my mother, who only asked that I keep it aside when finished, because my father hasn’t read it yet. And no, that’s not a typo in the title: “Nieuw Amsterdam” is how the city was originally spelled by European settlers. A long book with small print, I settled in thinking it would take me a few days to finish. Little did I realize that I would be finished approximately 36 hours later, unable to concentrate on anything else.

City of Dreams begins in the 1660s with English sibling settlers, the Turners, arriving in Nieuw Amsterdam, to make a new life for themselves and leave behind them a history that haunts them. The book is divided into sections of history, with the final section ending at the time of American independence from Britain. The Turners’ history carries through each book section, following their descendants through the years as they battle with political foes, family entanglements, and frightening “medical” procedures.

What was most compelling about this book, from our “modern” perspecti ve was definitely the medical history. Keeping in mind that while this is a novel, it is steeped in accurate history, and therefore the descriptions of the surgical and other medical theories and practices are accurate as well. Readers might be shocked to read of leechings, bleedings, emetics, and amputations being performed without anesthetics. Theories relating to the outbreak and spreading of diseases such as diptheria and small pox were particularly enthralling, and the irony of reading such a book while being  housebound was not entirely lost on me.

If you have the time to sacrifice any other trains of thought until this book is finished, pick up a copy. Put on the kettle, find your favourite chair, and settle in. I guarantee, (amateur) historian or not, you will not be able to put it down until the last page. Enjoy! (I certainly did!)

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