Saturday, November 26, 2011

Review: City of Orphans - Avi

City of Orphans by Avi
Genre: Middle Grade, historical fiction
Published on September 6, 2011
Published by Atheneum
Pages: 368
Read In: November 2011

The streets of 1893 New York are full of life: crowded, filthy, and 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 of 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, a 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. Amid the sights and the 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.


Unsurprisingly, this book was a masterpiece which only Avi could successfully write. City of Orphans is not the most "twisty-turny" book he's written, but it's got enough surprises to keep it from dragging, and even if it didn't, I doubt it would have dragged, because Avi once more populates his story with fascinating characters, each with their own unique past that is either told to the Reader or is alluded to in a manner which allows the Reader to guess pretty successfully at what might have happened in their previous lives.

Avi especially brings this book to life with a narration which sounds so thoroughly 1893 New York. He uses what I call a "ghost narrator." A character whose name you never find out, and who you may or may not meet in the book, but narrates the events in the story so it feels like a first-person narration, but also reads like third-person. Mark Helprin sort of uses a ghost narrator in his books A City in Winter and The Veil of Snows, except his narrators give a physical appearance in the stories, even though you never discover their names. Avi's narrator for City of Orphans is never named, nor does he (or she?) ever appear in the book. Only Avi could pull that off so effectively.

Any fan of Avi, and any fan of the late 1800s is going to love this book. It's got all of the needed elements and has a rather surprising ending. Completely authentic.

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