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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker

Genre: Historical Fiction

Setting: New York City, during the draft riots of 1863

First Sentence: He is coming.

The draft riots of 1863 in New York City are considered by many to be the largest civil uprising in U.S. history outside of the Civil War.  The riot, which started as a protest against the draft, turned into a race riot which lasted three days.  At least 100 black people were killed by the mostly Irish white rioters.  In the end, Army troops were called in to quell the riots.

Baker uses this riot as the backdrop for his novel.  In the novel, he tells the stories of several different characters whose lives intersect in Paradise Alley during the dangerous days of the riot.

Through the use of flashbacks, we learn the histories of each character.  We learn the hardships and struggles which led each character to be in Paradise Alley on the days of the riot.

Dangerous Johnny Dolan is a a ruthless, remorseless criminal who found a way to escape the Irish potato famine.

Ruth Dove watched her entire family starve to death, and followed Johnny to New York.

Billy Dove is an escaped slave who is a skilled shipbuilder.  But the only work he can find is as a janitor in an orphanage for black children.

Deirdre O'Kane is Johnny's older sister.  She escaped the famine in Ireland and found a good life as a domestic in New York.

Tom O'Kane is Dierdre's husband.  He enlisted in the Army as part of Dierdre's plan to mold him into a more respectable husband.

Maddy Boyle is a young Irish prostitute.  She brazenly serves both white and black clients.

Herbert Willis Thompson is a newspaper reporter.  He is also Maddy's lover.

Baker builds his story slowly as he gradually reveals each character's past.  As the riot grows in intensity, the tension of the story mounts.  I found myself becoming more engrossed in the plot as Baker brought all of the characters together in Paradise Alley.  I kept reading to discover how each would endure the danger of the riot.

I really enjoyed this novel.  I like Baker's writing style.  For me, the reading is effortless, and the story flowed.  His use of flashbacks mixes up the story timeline and keeps the reading interesting.

Also, if you liked the movie "Gangs of New York" you might like this novel.  Both stories are set in New York during the Civil War.

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