Friday, October 28, 2011
Book Review: City of Orphans, by Avi (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Avi, Newbery award-winning author of more than 60 novels for children and teens, turns once again to historical fiction in his newest novel, set in 1893 New York City. His hero, thirteen-year old Maks, makes a bit of money as a newsboy to help his impoverished immigrant family on the lower East Side. When his older sister, Emma, who works as a maid at the swank Waldorf-Astoria hotel, is falsely accused of theft and imprisoned in the city prison ominously called the Tombs, Maks teams up with a homeless girl, Willa, to try to clear his sister's name and free her from jail. At the same time, he has to avoid landing in the clutches of the Plug Ugly gang, whose boss is trying to take control of all the newsies. Confronted with a mystery whodunit, Maks enlists the help of a dying lawyer to find the true culprit of the theft at the hotel.
Avi knows how to spin a convincing tale, and this book is no exception. In his afterword, he notes that the book is his attempt to "catch a small bit of how New York City kids lived at the end of the nineteenth century." He's particularly adept at evoking the sounds, smells, and look of tenement life in New York, with its mix of poor immigrants from many nations. This poverty contrasts with the swank brand-new Waldorf Astoria, where Maks winds up working under cover to try to clear his sister's name. Avi uses a very colloquial voice to tell the story, with the narrator speaking directly to the reader. While I understand the use of a strong point of view, I was irritated by the way he tries to evoke the dialect of the time, with plenty of dropped letters, i.e. "'cause' instead of "because", 'bout' instead of "about," 'em' instead of "them," etc.
Avi includes an Author's Note with historical details about the period, as well as suggestions for further reading and viewing.
City of Orphans is definitely worth reading, and will be enjoyed by young people who like a historical mystery, but it would not be one of my favorites among Avi's works.