City of Orphans, by Avi

Maks is one of those mugs that you would call a ‘newsie’. A boy who stands on the corner and sells newspapers. It’s a hard way to earn money; the profit is 8 cents a day. But in 1893, that ain’t too bad for a 13-year-old.

When Maks’ sister is arrested for stealing a watch she never saw, Maks’ parents are confused and don’t know how to help her. Bein’ immigrants from Denmark, the law of the country don’t make no sense. Living in New York City don’t help much either; so much crime and poverty, and no one can help. Policemen are just as shady as the man who actually broke into Waldorf hotel last week and stole the watch.

With the help of an abandoned girl and an old, dying detective, it’s up to Maks to track down the real thief, in a city filled with the children of emigrants, who are all  poor and desperate. While some may have parents, they might as well be orphans.

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It’s funny; my first draft I wrote when I was only halfway through the book, but I totally changed my mind. The original rating was 2.5/5, and now it’s 4/5.

My original dislike came from the third person, present tense narrative. Not that that’s weird, but Avi spells out exactly how they talk, which can be hard for struggling readers and also for read-alouds. Avi also uses many incomplete sentences, even outside of conversation, but it makes it feel as though someone is narrating that speaks as they do. It makes the harder-to-read dialogue easier to swallow without having to switch back and forth between ‘normal’ speaking, and using an accent.

My favorite part about the book: Avi did his homework. He knew this subject well, and it showed. Almost in an unpleasant way; it felt like you were there, viewing the dirty underbelly of what it was like to be an orphan, hungry and cold on the streets, or even not to be an orphan, with a family who is so poor it almost would be better to be living on the streets so you don’t have any expectations of life getting better. Avi does paint a very clear picture of life approaching turn of the century.

For me, the characters almost took a back seat as he was painting this picture of what it was like without money, because no one had money to give, receive, or earn. It feels like Avi had this great idea about a plot, but as he delved deeper and deeper into the panic of 1893, the history aspect kept growing and growing until it almost made the plot insignificant.

Overall, it left something in me that I won’t forget. A deep sadness, in that, even though the story ended alright, there was still a city of orphans. I have never felt that before, for a historical fiction author to leave me wondering what happened to the rest of an entire city, even though we never met most of them.

I would be cautious who I recommend this to. The idea of a bigger picture within New York City was bleak. Not exactly depressing, but not cheerful either.

Listen to this:

(In reference to the newsboys): “Some lives in regular homes. Or, like you, don’t have no parents. They stay here or on the streets. Some sleep in those newsboys’ lodging houses. There are five of ’em. One for girls. Hey, I know a couple of guys who use old sewer pipes for homes. Some even live in rope houses.”

“What’s that?”

“Rooms with ropes stretched ‘cross. For two cents, you can hang your arms over the ropes, stand there, and sleep. Got a roof, don’t it?”

 

Overall Rating: 4/5

Violence: 3/10 (there are a couple ruthless bullies, plus a scene in which two men are shot, though no gore is described)

Language: 1/10

Inappropriateness/Romance: 1/10

Audience: Ages 10 and up.

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