Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 Wrap-Up: The Best Books You Never Heard Of #4

The Orphan Master by Jean Zimmerman

As a longtime book reviewer, currently the reviewer for Good Housekeeping, I am always being asked, "What should I read next?" In this year-end series, I answer that question while also calling attention to some under-appreciated books. 

It's always a bit awkward when two books come out in the same year with the same—or a very similar—title. It's happening in 2013, within mere days of each other (March 26 and April 2), unless one of the publishers blinks and makes a change: two novels called Life After Life, one by Jill McCorkle and one by Kate Atkinson, and both look good. It also happened to two good books in 2012. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is getting all the love, and though I haven't read it, I'm sure it's worthy. The one I read is The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman, and it is a juicy historical mystery love story social commentary which takes place in a time and place that I didn't think would have any appeal for me: 1663, in the Dutch-American colony of New Amsterdam (now Manhattan). Oh, was I wrong about that.

One of the best things about this book is the heroine, a bad-ass 22-year-old single woman who runs her own fur-trading business, riding fearlessly into Algonquin territory and haggling with the best of them. Then there's the dashing British spy sent from Europe to track down an enemy of the crown hiding out in the colonies. And orphaned children, Dutch, African, and Indian, going missing, turning up dead. What the fur trader and the spy have in common, besides fearlessness and good looks, is a strong conscience. So they pair up to find out who or what has taken these children—and if the orphanmaster or a local legend of a demon are involved.
In the background is the growing tension between the two colonizing nations, about to erupt into the Second Anglo-British War, and the hustle and bustle of life in the new-world villages they've established. Zimmerman recreates the rugged colonial town with such vividness you can smell the dirt. But the real coup here is how she captures the nuances (and not-so-nuances) of the power dynamics between men and women, children and adults, British and Dutch, whites and Africans and Indians, as old and new world cultures collide. While the Europeans reinvent themselves in the Americas—and make a place for an independent, property-owning woman like our heroine—the Native Americans, of course, are forced into changes as well. Opportunity for one is often loss--or worse--for another, no matter the where or the when.

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