Book Review: City of Orphans

Book Review: City of Orphans | Newbery and Beyond

I love, love, love Avi’s historical fiction, and this book is a pretty fantastic addition.  Taking place in turn-of-the-century New York City, the story follows Maks, the 13-year-old son of poor Danish immigrants.  He and all of his older siblings hold down jobs to take care of the family.  Maks is a newsie.  He hawks the afternoon newspaper called The World, while his 16-year-old sister works at the brand-new, extremely expensive Waldorf.  His 14-year-old sister works in the factory with his father, and their mother takes in laundry.  Even his younger brother Jacob, at seven years old, helps Maks out by taking over his newsie job when Maks can’t do it.  Seven years old!  It’s incredible.  Emma, the oldest sister, is put in jail because she is suspected of stealing a very expensive watch from one of the Waldorf guests, and Maks and his brand new friend Willa have to try to help her.  They seek help from a dying, washed-up detective to help prove Emma’s innocence.  At the same time, Maks and Willa have to evade Bruno, head of the Plug Uglies gang, who is trying to beat up, rob, and take over the newsies of The World.  (Unbeknownst to the newsies, Bruno is being blackmailed into doing so by a mysterious Mr. Brunswick, and throughout the story this mystery is interwoven with Maks and Willa’s quest to help Emma.)

One of the things that I liked most about books as a kid (and even now, as an adult) were stories in which kids had a lot of agency.  This book portrays that aspect wonderfully.  While Maks’s parents are hardworking and loving, they are still too Danish to really understand what is going on in their new American world, especially when Emma is put in jail.  They are totally lost, and their fear paralyzes them.  The children of the family have to work hard to take care of the whole family, including their parents, both financially and on the streets.  It really did portray, as one of the adult characters calls it, a “city of orphans” in which the “immigrant children are all orphans with parents” (p. 154 in my edition), and I found that fascinating.

The book also doesn’t gloss over the nastier parts of living in the late 19th century: horrifyingly crowded jails in which prisoners must buy their own food or starve, a sharp and disconcerting contrast between the rich and the poor, the difficulties of immigrant life, the fact that children couldn’t seek help from authorities because kids’ stuff belongs to the kids, and so on.

The book includes illustrations by Greg Ruth, which are wonderful as well.  They are few and far between, and they only depict the main characters of the story–Maks, Willa, Bruno, Mr. Brunswick, etc.  This book is definitely worth a read by kids (and adults!) who want to explore the hardships and triumphs of immigrant life in 1890’s New York.

Rating: Re-read Worthy

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