- Hardcover: 432 pages
- Publisher: Viking; First Edition edition (June 19, 2012)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670023647
- ISBN-13: 978-0670023646
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 102 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,710,928 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Orphanmaster Hardcover – Large Print, June 19, 2012
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Praise for The Orphanmaster:
“The Orphanmaster is a sweeping novel of great and precise imaginative intelligence; it's also the most entertaining and believable historical novel I've read in years. Jean Zimmerman is a debut novelist who already writes like an old master. Read any page of The Orphanmaster and you'll become an instant fan.” – Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life and Chang and Eng
“Jean Zimmerman's seventeenth-century New Amsterdam teems with enough intrigue, lust, and madness to give our twenty-first-century Big Apple a run for its money. And money is what drives this book – liberating, corrupting, forming the only bulwark against a terrifying, chaotic New World. Zimmerman's wit and humanity shine light in a dark woods, creating an uncommonly rich debut.” – Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger
“Here’s American history turned inside out, animated by Jean Zimmerman’s prodigious imagination. Monsters lurk in the shadows, chaos presses in, legends come alive, and one adventure leads with irresistible force to the next. The Orphanmaster is a breathtaking achievement.” – Joanna Scott, author of Arrogance and Various Antidotes
“[A] compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and grisly mystery set in a wild colonial America.” – ALA Booklist
“A feisty young Dutch woman, an English spy, and a local demon all cross paths in 1663 New Amsterdam, in this Ludlumesque historical thriller…a successful mix of historical fiction, spy thriller, and horror.” – Library Journal
"As in the best historical fiction, [Zimmerman] has created a kind of truce between the authority of the past and the accessibility of the present, revealing to us what it once meant to be alive, and what that history means to us now ... on nearly every page there is some unobtrusively offered word or description, of food, of architecture, of dress, that brings the period and its people into clearer focus." – USA Today
"Absorbing period fiction with the requisite colorful characters of the era." – The New York Daily News
About the Author
Jean Zimmerman was born in Tarrytown, New York. An honors graduate of Barnard College, she is the author of several works of nonfiction, including Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance and The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty. She lives in Ossining, New York.
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This is, of course, the time of Colonial America. France, Spain, England and the Netherlands have staked out their claims to territories in the New World. New Netherland, what is now New York, New Jersey and Delaware, was founded in the early 17th century by the Dutch West India Company for trading purposes. Neighboring territories such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, most of Connecticut, and Long Island had been colonized by England at more or less the same time.
One interesting thing I noticed about this is that since the Dutch areas were not created for religious reasons but rather for trading, there appeared to be a good amount of personal freedoms for the colonists of New Netherland and New Amsterdam (now New York City), especially for women. The main female character in this novel, Blandine van Couvering, was orphaned as a young teen and is now an independent woman, making a successful career as a "she-merchant". She's so good at trading that, to give you an example, she began one market day in this story with a container of molasses and, through various trades throughout the day, ended up with a large parcel of valuable land AND a container of molasses. Unmarried Blandine has all the rights and freedoms of her unmarried male counterparts and, were she to marry, has the right to choose to maintain her independence and control of all her property and goods brought into the marriage.
Blandine is also open-minded and fair. She is a friend to the "indians" or "wilden" (Native Americans) and to the Africans living in the area and, as an orphan herself, feels a kinship with the numerous orphans around. And that brings me to the title of this book. Orphanmaster was an actual profession in colonial New Amsterdam. The person in charge of caring for and fostering out all orphaned children in the colony. Here the orphanmaster is Aet Visser, a good but flawed man who does seems to genuinely care about his charges and with whom Blandine has a close, almost daughterly, relationship.
Add to the mix many colorful Dutch, English, native, and African characters and a newly-arrived handsome English stranger who, while claiming to be a trader in grains, is actually a British spy and regicide hunter. (He hunts down internationally those who had arranged for the beheading of Charles I, the action triggering Cromwell's Puritanical Parliamentary reign and years of English Civil war until the Restoration of the monarchy and crowning of Charles II, now king of England as this story takes place.)
Into this tale of the many peoples and their ways of life in 1660s New Amsterdam, the author adds in a rather gruesome mystery. Orphan children are going missing and there seems to be a possible serial killer. Many believe it is the Algonquin demon known as "witika", an extremely scary-looking cannibalistic monster. (To research this Algonquin lore further, I found the word "wendigo" to be more productive than the word "witika" in online searches. And there are even more variations on the spelling of this ghastly monster of native folklore.)
I will say nothing more about the plot. I do need to mention, however, that ratings for this book are all over the place. Almost as many readers dislike this book as like it, as many hate it as love it. As a teacher, I recognize an almost classic Bell curve in the grades reviewers are giving this. I suspect that part of the reason is the very denseness of the story There's so much to this. So many characters. So much historical information on life in this 1660s colony. So much happening to so many people. Perhaps it's too much for some readers.
But I also suspect that much dislike for the book comes from the mystery itself. It is quite gruesome and gory. That may not sit well with all readers. I found this to be a fascinating tale, but I'm not going to recommend it across the board to all who read my review. However, if you're a reader like me who has a high tolerance for disturbing, creepy details in a mystery and who really, really likes a lot of history interwoven skillfully (not as boring information dumps) within the pages, this could be for you.
Despite the large number of characters in this mystery of shifting property lines, ghastly torture, and murder, author Zimmerman’s superior skill at character development helps us to understand and empathize with Bandine Van Couvering, a successful female fur trader, and her love, Edward Hammond, a British spy. In this tale of high intrigue, the two are tracked, and frequently targeted by evil doers disguised as paranormal spirits who terrorize the entire colonial population.
Below are a few brief quotes from literally hundreds of examples of this debut novelist handling of character development. Her technique, brief passages and phrases, and using an omniscient point of view allows her to reveal characters by what others think of them.
Blandine Van Couvering: At times she looked up at Blandine as the earthworm must look at the acrobat, in wonder that such things were done. … “Eight hundred guilders.” Miep said, adopting a pious tone whenever money was mentioned. “Take away the cost of he pelt guns,” Blandine said, “and the expenses of this trip totaling perhaps two hundred seventy being generous. Yielding what?” … She had watched the cogs of the young girl’s mind turn, “Five hundred thirty, isn’t it?”
Edward Drummond: Drummond must appear the simple grain merchant, newly arrived in search of his lodgings. He possessed letters of trade that would present him as such.
One thing he enjoyed most about the Dutch, perhaps their best characteristic, was that they were always too busy with their single-minded scurrying about after profit to pay anyone else much mind.
These brief thumbnails of Protagonists Blandine and Edward Hammond grab you from the first page and, delightfully sadistic, don’t let you go till the final page.
In addition, we learn through showing not telling an enormous amount about the colonies and local 17th century Dutch Customs. For this alone, author Zimmerman’s research and its incorporation into “Orphan Master” is awesome. In addition to English and Dutch mores, both in the colonies and in Europe, as well as the local Indian bands, of New England at that time.
Although hanging was a popular sport, aided by trumped up charges, there is plenty of evil to spread around and justice to be done in “Orphan Master.” In the final chapter of the story we are taken on an exciting chase from the point of view of the bad guys as well as the good guys – a sort of 17th century car chase afoot and on horseback holding us enthralled to the end.
Jean Zimmerman’s book, Orphan Master is a truly well done and thrilling book. Don’t miss it.
I can tolerate one really horrific scene in a murder mystery. Here, there are four truly nauseating ones before you get halfway through. I didn’t want to read any more. The heroine is nicely drawn, but the author tells us, rather than showing us, her adventures—the hallmark of a poor writing style.
If you want a really great murder mystery, that really reads well, try Sleeping Murder, by Agatha Christie, or The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers. Or The Grass Widow’s Tale by Ellis Peters.