The Orphanmaster, by Jean Zimmerman (plus a giveaway!)
When Janet invited me to be a part of a little blogger book club, I jumped at the chance, of course. I joined forces with Janet, along with Leah and Stephanie, to read and discuss The Orphanmaster, by Jean Zimmerman, which is available today!
Here’s a quick synopsis of the book from the publisher, Penguin:
It’s 1663 in the tiny, hardscrabble Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now present-day southern Manhattan. Orphan children are going missing, and among those looking into the mysterious state of affairs are a quick-witted twenty-two-year-old trader, Blandine van Couvering, herself an orphan, and a dashing British spy named Edward Drummond.
Suspects abound, including the governor’s wealthy nephew, a green-eyed aristocrat with decadent tastes; an Algonquin trapper who may be possessed by a demon that turns people into cannibals; and the colony’s own corrupt and conflicted orphanmaster. Both the search for the killer and Edward and Blandine’s newfound romance are endangered, however, when Blandine is accused of being a witch and Edward is sentenced to hang for espionage. Meanwhile, war looms as the English king plans to wrest control of the colony.
Intriguing, right? Right.
I read this 432-page book in 10 days, which is not outrageously fast for me, but it’s still a major page-turner. There’s a lot going on: the friction between English and Dutch settlers, the reinstatement of the shaky British monarchy, the tension between the settlers and the Native Americans, the tension between the settlers in the African citizens, and the somewhat cutthroat tone of settlement life. I mean, at the heart of it, you have this fierce female protagonist in the midst of a shady orphan-killing operation in an early American settlement. It’s like, Law and Order: SVU meets The Crucible. All this to say, this book is kind of tense.
I should admit that I had no idea that Manhattan was originally settled by the Dutch. Wait, was it? (Hold, please, while I consult Wikipedia.) Yes, it was! Okay, then. See, when I read historical fiction, I basically accept everything in the book because my grasp of history is, well, fictional. I thought Zimmerman did a great job of setting up the city, explaining how its culture was different from other English settlements (read: way more progressive), and showing how other events around the world affected the far-flung colonies. It struck me that, as a delicate flower, I would not have fared well as a New World settler.
My favorite scenes were the ones when the heroine, Blandine was being all feisty and boundary-breaking. There’s a great sequence when she goes to a different town to do trade, and she ends up besting all of the men. After a series of trading up, not only does she end up with a hefty prize, but she manages to trade for the item she started with. Booyah, Blandine! It was really interesting to consider how fortunate she was to grow into adulthood in such a progressive colony that allowed her to pursue her own living as a trader, even with the expectation that she would marry eventually.
The plot was a bit shaky for me. I never quite understood whether the book was intended to be a mystery or a thriller. Maybe both? The villain seemed pretty obvious, and I am usually as dense as a brick when it comes to mysteries. I almost would have preferred a story just about Blandine and Edward and how they managed in the settlement during a rocky historical period. And then, there’s the whole supernatural murder story. Even though I could follow the plot, I often raised my eyebrow as I read because the “demon that turns people into cannibals” was a step too far for me. Although this book was well written and thoroughly researched, my overwhelming impression was that it was so weird.
Even though I feel kind of lukewarm toward this book, the truth is that I need someone to discuss the ending with me. When I read the last line, I was all, “What?!” And not because I didn’t get it. Oh, it was perfectly clear. I just … yeah. Do me a favor and read this book so that we can exclaim together about it.
Conveniently enough, Penguin is offering a free copy of The Orphanmaster, and my copy is up for grabs, too, so 2 lucky commenters will get their hands on this oh-so-very new release. This giveaway is open to US residents only, and I will need mailing addresses (no PO boxes, please) from both winners. Leave a comment on this post by Tuesday, June 26, and I will choose 2 winners randomly and notify them via e-mail. Good luck!
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