City of Orphans

City of Orphans

Book Information

Atheneum/Richard Jackson 2011

"Twice before in American history, powerful corporate interests dominated Washington and brought America to a state of unacceptable inequity, instability and corruption. Both times a social and political movement arose to restore democracy and shared prosperity. "The first age of inequity was the Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century, an era quite like today, when both political parties served the interests of the corporate robber barons. The progressive movement arose after the financial crisis of 1893. In the following decades Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson came to power and the movement pushed through a remarkable era of reform: trust busting, federal income taxation, fair labor standards, the direct election of senators and women's suffrage." -- from the op-ed piece "The New Progressive Movement" by Jeffrey D. Sachs, The New Times, 11/12/11

"'A swell mobsman, that's all yous are,' Bruno says with a sneer. 'Where do yous come from?' "'I was born here.' "'Yeah, But all yous got is a pistol. And connections.' "The man nods. 'And a photo of you.' "Bruno, feeling hatred, clenches his fists.

"'I don't care if you like me or not,' the man says. 'Just keep doing what I've told you to do. And if you don't...' He spreads his jacket, revealing the pistol. "'Aw, never mind,' says Bruno, wishing, not for the first time, he had that pistol and the photo in his own hands. "'Good,' says the man. 'Now, how did things go today?'

"'Fine,' Bruno says. Reaches down, sets a small sack on the table. Coins clink.' 'From four newsies.' "'Four is a sad number, Bruno. You need to work harder.' says the man. 'Faster.' "'Don't know why yous bother,' says Bruno. 'Shagging pennies from mugs.' "'I don't care about the pennies. The point is, newspapers in this city are powerful. They have a lot of influence. Don't they?'

"'I don't know. I just like the Sunday funny pages.' "'But to get their influence, they must sell the papers to people, correct?' "'Suppose.' "'How do they sell them?' "'Newsies.' "'Hundreds of them.' "'So what?' "'Bruno, for once, think,' says the man. 'If someone could control those newsboys, keeping them from buying and selling papers, that person would control that newspaper.'

"'What you're always saying.' "'Because you don't seem to grasp it. That boss of mine, the man I work for, want to control The World and what it says about him. It's as simple as that. So, Bruno, we start by controlling those boys. I've made sure the police won't interfere. So just harass those boys. Hound them. Make them fear you. Don't let them slip from your grasp.'"

On the streets of New York in 1893, the year of the aforementioned landmark financial panic, thirteen year-old newsboy Maks Geless does not have the luxury of waiting for a social movement to make things better. He is living in a tiny, crowded tenement flat on the Lower East Side with his Danish immigrant parents, his three younger brothers and his smart older sister Agnes who -- despite clearly showing signs of tuberculosis -- toils all day at the factory with Papa and then attends classes at night. Oh, and also a single guy who boards with them, providing income that helps keep the family financially afloat. Maks's other older sister, Emma, has been employed, cleaning rooms at the new Waldorf Astoria and living in the worker's dormitory there.

But on the same day that Maks escapes a robbing and beating at the hands Bruno and the rest of the Plug Uglies Gang -- thanks to the intervention of a homeless, rag-picker orphan girl named Willa who, with her big stick, comes to his aid -- he arrives home with Willa in tow to discover that his sister Emma has been arrested and sent to The Tombs for allegedly stealing a gold pocket watch.

"Now, this jail, what they call 'The Tombs,' it takes up a whole city block. Built of stones so huge and heavy, it's partly sunk into the ground. Means you have to walk down a slope to get to the main entrance steps. Fact, people say going to The Tombs is like taking the first steps to Hell." In this Gilded Age, in this City of Orphans, where common folks are like ants to be stepped on by the privileged and the powerful, where his parents are essentially paralyzed in their reaction to the arrest, Maks is inspired by a boy detective story and goes in search of a real-life investigator to help free Emma. So it is that he and Willa are taken under wing by the decrepit, idealistic, down-on-his-heels private detective Bartleby Donck who is damned near deaf and damned near death (thanks to tuberculosis).

It is under Donck's tutelage that Maks and Willa, themselves, will have to do the dangerous legwork that will hopefully, somehow yield the clues necessary to prove Emma's innocence. "'Therefore!' cries Donck, pointing a dirty, fat finger at Maks, 'you can be my farewell gift to this doomed city. A boy detective! Pha!'" Like the intricate inner workings of a fine gold watch from a bygone era, Avi crafts a not-to-be-missed mystery/thriller yarn featuring a colorful cast of mugs and swells and set amidst the opulence and the poverty of nineteenth century Manhattan.

368 pages         978-1416971085          Ages 10-14

Recommended by:  Richie Partington, MLIS, California USA


Plot twists, big accusations, and plenty of shifty, crooked characters fill the pages of this harrowing adventure from Newbery Medalist Avi.

The streets of 1893 New York are crowded and filthy. For thirteen-year-old newsboy Maks Geless, they are also dangerous. Bruno, leader of the awful Plug Ugly Gang, has set his sights on Maks and orders his boys to track him down. Suddenly Maks finds himself on the run, doing all he can to evade the gang, with only his new friend Willa by his side. And that’s just the start of Mak’s troubles. His sister, Emma, has been arrested and imprisoned for stealing a watch from the glamorous new Waldorf Hotel. Maks knows she didn’t do it—but will he be able to prove it in time? This is a riveting, quickly paced adventure set against a backdrop alive with the sights and sounds of tenement New York.--from the publisher

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