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1741 Paperback – May 29, 2015
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The Amazon Book Review
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About the Author
Robert Mayer is the author of such diverse and acclaimed work as the true crime classic The Dreams Of Ada and the dark comedy Superfolks, the novel which changed the direction of superheroes ("It is gorgeous. It is splendid. It is funny as hell... He writes like an angel." - Newsday) His historical drama The Origin Of Sorrow, about life in the Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt in the 18th century, has become a sleeper hit, drawing an ongoing stream of reader accolades and word-of-mouth sales. A native of New York, Mayer lives now in New Mexico.
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1741 is the year of the so called Negro Conspiracy when 34 New Yorkers: slaves, and white "sympathizers" were hung and burned on little evidence, for allegedly plotting to burn the colony and overthrow the government. Mayer has humanized the history, and imagined a beautiful love story, based on New York Burning, by Harvard historian Jill Lepore.
Mayer creates three back stories, in Africa, Ireland and New Foundland. James, proud King, is threatened by slavers to surrender in Africa. When James refuses, his pregnant wife is murdered. The double death of mother and unborn baby sets the stage for the tribes' shackled march to the coast, and horrendous voyage to New York.
The second "voice" is Mary, in Ireland who tells her story in diary form. At 14, she's sold by Belfrey Church orphanage into indentured servitude to a New York owner. Aboard the ship, hapless Mary who doesn't know about sex, or what indentured means, becomes pregnant.
The third voice is Peggy, a vivacious red head, endlessly cleaning fish in New Foundland, yearning to join her lover in New York. When Peggy suspects she's being jilted, she scrapes together fare, and heads for NY to win him back. The three lives and loves merge in Manhattan, at Hughson Inn, a seedy rooming house, and pub for whores, thieves, slaves and servants.
James' ironic slave name becomes Caesar, whose royal spirit is almost crushed. Peggy struggles too, forced into prostitution, servicing white and blacks, which is how she falls in love with Caesar. Mary, lonely, and needy, wants Peggy's attention, but the ho with the heart of gold, has no time to comply. The stepping stone to the gallows is the New Years bash at the inn, attended by Peggy, Caesar, Mary and a motley crew. The party takes place after a series of fires rumored to be set by slaves. At the party, there's drunken babble about a plot, which no one takes seriously. These empty threats become grist for the rumor mill, used by local "pols." to promote themselves. Mary is sought out as a witness, coerced to testify. She takes the bait, implicating Peggy and Caesar, and others.
A fourth voice, is the famous journalist Peter Zenger, who reports on the shady questionable proceedings, and political motivations.
I intend to read Jill Lepore's book to separate fact and fiction.
1741 is compelling, uplifting, and a revelation. I know about "strange fruit" hung from Southern trees. I didn't know until 1741, that in my beloved New York, blacks and whites were hung as street theater, and as a warning not to challenge the status quo of slavery.
Mayer softens the dark saga with enduring love, compassion, and a glimmer of racial healing. A brightly colored parrot seen only by Caesar, follows him from Africa to New York as witness and reminder of his true self. In the closing scene, the parrot appears to Jamie, Peggy and Caesar's orphaned toddler as a harbinger of hope. Jamie's adoptive parents hope to raise the toddler in multi-racial freedom. In 2015, we aren't there. Reading 1741 is a step towards the dream.
Mayer vivifies his characters so completely that readers will find it hard to imagine the events could have happened any other way. As is the case with true art, his characters reveal themselves from the inside so that their various actions can be considered and evaluated from their own perspectives, locked into their own time and place.
Yet this novel is profoundly prescient of current American culture with its video awareness of prejudices brutally enshrined in policing practices and legal codes. This story speaks to the present moment as much as it delivers the head of history on a silver platter. As is the case with many past and present communities, New York's jagged justice rips apart the heart of all who care.
Typical of Mayer's seasoned writing, each word is necessary and each paragraph artfully moves the drama forward. I heartily recommend this book. The story tells itself and at the end you marvel at Mayer's masterful touch.