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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Genre: Historical Fiction

Setting: New York, 1910

First Sentence: I know a story.

In this novel, Kevin Baker transports the reader to the New York of 1910.  Baker weaves several plot lines  together to create a complex tapestry depicting life in that era.

Tammany Hall controls the city.  Even the mayor is a puppet for corrupt politicians.  Factory workers  put in long hours  in squalid sweatshops for low pay.  Gangsters and criminals roam the city looking for easy prey.  Homeless children sleep in alleyways.  Prostitutes, con men and corrupt policemen are everywhere.  As one character in the novel says, "Everyone has a racket in this town."

Baker contrasts the struggle of life in the city with the fantasy world of the Coney Island amusement parks.  He describes how each summer the people of the city come to shrug off their cares and embrace the hedonistic pleasures of the parks.

To tell his story, Baker uses a large cast of interesting characters.  Each character has a unique point of view.

Some of Bakers memorable characters are:

Essie who escapes the drudgery of work in a sweat shop by having an affair with a gangster hiding out in Dreamland.

Kid Twist who came to America by walking across Europe and stowing away in ship bound for New York.

Big Tim Sullivan who is a corrupt Tammany politician.  He controls saloons, gangsters, and the Mayor of New York.

The Great Head Doctors from Vienna who are Sigmund Freud and his protege Carl Jung.  They give a European perspective to the chaos of New York.

Trick the Dwarf is the narrator of the story.  Trick sometimes enters regular society by passing as a young boy.  He experiences the best and worst times of the Dreamland amusement park.

For me, this novel was a long slow struggle to finish.  I kept reading because I wanted to find out how Baker resolved the plot lines.  Spoiler Alert - He doesn't.  He brings the story to an end, but there is no great climax.  And perhaps  that is the point.  In real life not all of our plot lines are resolved.  We may escape reality for a while, but life goes on.

This novel is  a very well written historical novel.  Although it was slow reading, I enjoyed it.


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