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City of Orphans by Avi: Historical Mystery

September 14, 2011

City of Orphans
Atheneum, September 2011
$16.99 354 pages
Ages 10-14
ARC provided by Paul Crichton at Simon and Schuster.

Set in the tenements and streets of 1893 New York, City of Orphans is an adventure, a mystery, and an interesting historical tale. Maks is a newsie, a young boy yelling the headlines on a street corner to sell papers, and help his family eke out a living. Willa doesn’t have a family of her own. When Bruno and his gang of bullies attack Maks, Willa rescues him, brandishing a very big stick. (Hooray for a girl saving the day!)
Maks invites Willa home, to offer her dinner with his family. But, at home, there’s chaos: Maks’s sister Emma has been fired from her job at the Waldorf Astoria, for stealing a gold watch. And worse, she’s been thrown into prison at the Tombs. Maks’s family is devastated. His parents, Danish immigrants with very little money, don’t know how they can afford a lawyer for Emma and still pay the rent.
Maks and Willa plunge in, and try to solve the mystery.
There were a lot of things I loved about this book. I love reading well-written historical fiction about 19th century New York- tenements and dirty streets alongside opulent hotels like the Waldorf. Crime bosses squeezing newspapers to tell flattering stories. People scraping out a living any way they can, picking rags, working in noisy factories, speaking the language of the old country. Dealing with dirt and disease, (a few characters coughing blood into handkerchiefs and then getting on with their daily life. Yikes!) Avi captures the period so well, both in the plot and in the narrative voice he adopts: conversational and slangy, as if someone close to Maks and Willa were telling the tale.
The mystery and adventure of clearing Emma’s name were clearly written for a middle grade reader, but the twists of the plot kept me guessing, too. And the action pelted along at a very good pace, following the two storylines of Emma’s mystery and the feud with Bruno’s gang.

City of Orphans reminded me of the All of a Kind Family series of books by Sydney Taylor. They’re set in New York’s tenements at a similar time period. It was a family with a whole bunch of daughters- five, I think. They were Orthodox Jews. I loved those books- how perfectly they seemed to capture the daily life of that time in New York. I read and reread them when I was 8, 9, 10. If I remember correctly, Sheldon’s writing was a good deal more… prim than this. The sisters got into scrapes and mischief of a much more domestic kind. This is a much more gritty story, with mystery and some violent fights, and a harsher take on the time period.

Not sure if I’ll reread this, but I’ll definitely recommend it- a good middle-reader book! (Those are so hard to find.)

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