Tales Through Time: 19th Century New York

Tales Through Time: 19th Century New York

by Thom Barthelmess, Youth Services Manager

We all know that books are full of information. We grow up being taught to “look it up” whenever we encounter an unfamiliar word or concept, and for many of us books remain a go-to source for investigation. But, in addition to information living inside of books, information lives between them, too. When we read about a singular topic in a variety of sources, from a variety of perspectives, we learn both from the sources themselves, and from the ways they differ, one from the next. Indeed, immersing myself in a number of books with a common setting is one of my favorite ways to learn about a certain place or time.

So, as we spend the month of August reading TALES THROUGH TIME, I offer three different books that shine a different light on New York City around the turn of the last century. Reading them together gives us a particular opportunity to become time travelers ourselves.

These Shallow Graves, by Jennifer Donnelly

Jo Montfort is an heiress possessed of just the sort of curiosity that killed the cat. When her shipping magnate father dies under mysterious circumstances, Jo takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of it. Inspired by her hero, celebrity reporter Nellie Bly, Jo teams up with a hardscrabble (and handsome) reporter Eddie Gallagher, and together they troll the seedy streets of Manhattan in search of the truth. Though steeped in suspense and rife with intrigue, the book’s deeper insights come from Donnelly’s explorations of class and gender 100 years ago. Riveting and revealing.

Ten Days a Madwoman: The Daring Life and Turbulent Times of the Original “Girl” Reporter Nellie Bly, by Deborah Noyes

This scrupulously researched biography focuses on Nellie Bly’s exposé on the common practice of committing “difficult” young women to mental institutions. (Bly went undercover, posing as a patient in an asylum for mentally ill women.) Noyes peppers the clear-eyed narrative with selections from Bly’s own reporting, making her experiences and accordant sacrifices especially compelling and immediate. Readers learn a great deal about Bly herself through her own eyes, and appreciate the obstacles she had to overcome.

The Gallery, by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

The art history mystery may be my all-time favorite sub-genre, and The Gallery delivers, not only as an exemplar of the form, but as a window into its time and place as well. Set a few decades after These Shallow Graves and Ten Days a Madwoman, the book concerns Martha, a young maid in an opulent Manhattan mansion, in service to Archer Sewell, dashing newspaper mogul. Sewell’s wife Rose, once the talk of the town, is now but a reclusive shadow, and Martha suspects something is amiss. Are there messages for her among the arrangement of paintings in the house’s art gallery? The deft characterizations and taut plotting give the book its gripping appeal, and enhance the resonance of Fitzgerald’s deeper questions about issues of the day, including racism, economics, and yellow journalism.

Individually each of these books opens our eyes to issues and ideals of their time. Taken together they invite a more considered curiosity, and provoke real wonder.

What time period would you like to visit? Talk to your local librarian about a selection of books that might transport you there.