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City of Orphans
Richard Jackson Books, 2011
HC: 978-1416971023
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City of Orphans

The streets of 1893 New York are full of life: crowded, filthy, dangerous. If you are a newsboy like thirteen-year-old Maks Geless, you need to watch out for Bruno, leader of the Plug Ugly Gang whose shadowy, sinister boss is plotting to take control of all the newsies on the lower East Side.

With Bruno’s boys in fierce pursuit, Maks discovers Willa, a strange girl who lives alone in an alley. It is she, stick in hand, who fights off the Plug Uglies—but further dangers await.

Maks must find a way to free his sister Emma from The Tombs, the city jail where she has been imprisoned for stealing a watch at the glamorous new Waldorf Hotel. Maks, believing her innocent, has only four days to prove it. Fortunately, there is Bartleby Donck, the eccentric lawyer (among other employments) to guide Maks and Willa in the art of detection.

Against a backdrop alive with the sights and sounds of tenement New York, Maks, as boy detective, must confront a teeming world of wealth and crime, while struggling against powerful forces threatening new immigrants and the fabric of family love.

Behind the Book

Avi Writes: In the late Nineteenth Century, and early Twentieth Century, because of its proximity to Ellis Island, one of the major landing sites for immigrants, thousands upon thousands of people came to New York City. As it happened, many of these people found tenement housing in Manhattan, around and about what is called the Lower East Side. In fact, it was where my ancestors first settled. (As a college student, I found cheap housing there, too.) It was here theses immigrants—millions of them—became Americans. 

For the most part these immigrants were poor, very poor.  New York City, however, was home to fabulous wealth. A contemporary book, How the Other Half Lives, documents this dichotomy.

When I read accounts of this time, I was struck by the constant mention of masses of children who seemed to have lived on the streets. They were there because immigrant families often had large families, yet lived—at best—in tiny quarters. There was nowhere else for the kids to go, but on the streets to play and work.

Being children, being on the street, being at work, they were often much more quickly assimilated into American culture and society than their parents were.   They had parents, but in some respects, they were very different from their parents. Hence the title, and the story, City of Orphans.

It was also a time of mass-marketed books for young people. Detective stories were quite popular. Indeed, the working title for this book was The Boy Detective.

Having become interested in all of this, and deciding to write a novel about this time and place, I was fortunate to visit the Tenement Museum in New York City.  It is a fascinating place, preserving as it does, the kind of life about which I was learning.

Finally, if you visit the Lower East Side you will find much of it very much as it was a hundred and some years ago.

Simply put, it was hard to resists writing a novel about this time.


starred review“An immigrant family tries to survive crime, poverty and corruption in 1893 New York City.

"Earning enough money to cover the rent and basic needs in this year of economic panic is an endless struggle for every member of the family. Every penny counts, even the eight cents daily profit 13-year-old Maks earns by selling newspapers. Maks also must cope with violent attacks by a street gang and its vicious leader, who in turn is being manipulated by someone even more powerful. Now Maks’ sister has been wrongly arrested for stealing a watch at her job in the glamorous Waldorf Hotel and is in the notorious Tombs prison awaiting trial. How will they prove her innocence? Maks finds help and friendship from Willa, a homeless street urchin, and Bartleby Donck, an eccentric lawyer. Avi’s vivid recreation of the sights and sounds of that time and place is spot on, masterfully weaving accurate historical details with Maks’ experiences as he encounters the city of sunshine and shadow. An omniscient narrator speaks directly to readers, establishing an immediacy that allows them to feel the characters’ fears and worries and hopes.

"Heroic deeds, narrow escapes, dastardly villains, amazing coincidences and a family rich in love and hope are all part of an intricate and endlessly entertaining adventure. Terrific!” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review)

starred review“Thirteen-year-old Maks Geless, the oldest son of Danish immigrants, makes eight cents a day hawking The World on Manhattan street corners in 1893. Newbery Medalist Avi tells his story in a vibrant, unsophisticated, present-tense voice (a typical chapter begins, “Okay, now it’s the next day—Tuesday”), and it’s a hard life. Maks’s sister Agnes has TB, the shoe factory where Agnes and Mr. Geless work is suspending operations, and the grocer and landlord want their accounts paid. Then Maks’s oldest sister, Emma, is accused of stealing from a guest at the Waldorf Hotel, where she is a maid. Amid this strife, the good-hearted Gelesses take in Willa, a homeless girl who saved Maks from a street gang. Maks and Willa must prove Emma’s innocence, with the help of an odd, possibly dying detective (he’s coughing up blood, too). The contrasts among Maks’s family’s squalid tenement existence; Emma’s incarceration in the Tombs, the city’s infamous prison; and the splendor of the Waldorf bring a stark portrait of 19th-century society to a terrifically exciting read, with Ruth’s fine pencil portraits adding to the overall appeal).” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

starred review“Dickensian street action comes to New York’s Lower East Side in this gripping story, set in 1893, of newsboy Maks, 13, who feels “hungry twenty-five hours a day.” After rescuing a filthy, homeless girl, Willa, Maks takes her to the crowded tenement he shares with his struggling Danish immigrant family. Pursued by Bruno, the leader of the Plug Ugly street gang, Maks is desperate to save his sister, Emma, who was imprisoned after being falsely accused of stealing a watch from the Waldorf Hotel, where she worked as a cleaner. Just as compelling as the fast-moving plot’s twists and turns is the story’s social realism, brought home by the contrasts between the overcrowded, unsanitary slums (“No water, gas, electricity”) and the luxurious Waldorf. Then there are the unspeakable conditions in prison, where, even as a prisoner, Emma must pay for food. Avi writes in an immediate, third-person, present-tense voice, mostly from Maks’ colloquial viewpoint (“He’s full of heartache, but no one is seeing it”), with occasional switches to Willa and to the desperate young gangster leader. Threading together the drama are tense mysteries: Is Willa really an orphan? Who stole the watch? A riveting historical novel.” (Booklist, starred review)

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