Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

The Orphanmaster by Jean Zimmerman

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The Orphanmaster is another National Public Radio recommendation for people who like historical fiction, which I really do. I remember being a kid, and yawning my way through history, memorizing dates, it all seemed so irrelevant. Discovering historical fiction was like a light going on in a dark room for me – clever authors have found ways to illuminate events otherwise beyond my comprehension or worse – events I have a hard time making myself care about.

Suddenly, the times are right now and relevant when the right author handles it, and it isn’t always easy to get it right. I have a few very favorite authors – Philippa Gregory, Zoe Oldenberg, Sharon Kay Penman, Jean Plaidy, Edward Rutherford – authors who do a lot of research before they ever sit down to write a novel, and from whom you can learn a lot. They get the nature of the dialogue right, they get the customs, traditions and mind-sets right, and they get it right when a person is born ahead of his or her time in terms of the challenges they face.

I couldn’t put Orphanmaster down. It has to do with an era in American history which barely gets a paragraph in many history books, when the Dutch had a colony on what is now Manhattan Island, and trading posts up what is now the Hudson, into what is now New York. It was New Amsterdam, and many of the street names in modern day New York reflect their Dutch origins.

The Orphanmaster‘s main character is not the Orphanmaster. He is a supporting character to the main character to a girl orphaned at 15, daughter of a Dutch man and wife who were not rich, but who did all right. They had a business, they traded, Blandine learned many things before they died, leaving her an orphan. She was determined to be what would now be an “emancipated minor,” but until she turned 16, she was semi-legally under the responsibility of the Orphanmaster, who sort of kept hands off and sort of watched out for Blandine. She lives on her own and is a successful trader, in her early twenties. She is also a very clean housekeeper, and has plans to grow her trading business, and has a serious suitor she intends to marry.

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Orphans start disappearing, and we discover a monster, a witiga, is on the loose. Blandine, and her new friend Drummond, are intrigued and disturbed by the disappearance of orphans, and the bloody, ritualistic mutilations of the orphans by the legendary Witiga.

It’s well written. You want to keep reading and keep reading because you want to know how it ends and how they are able to solve the problem.

It’s not one of the best books I’ve ever read for one reason – the author had the main characters talk as if they were modern people, using modern language, like ‘stuff.’ There was great openness between Blandine and her male friends. Blandine made all her own decisions, made her own arrangements and had full freedom, going where she wanted, doing what she wanted. The author explains it as part of the Dutch system, where some women had a lot of freedom, but I have a really hard time believing in a Dutch colony in the late 1600’s that any woman had the freedom Blandine had. There are parts of the novel where I am reading fast because I want to know what happens next and I get stopped up because Blandine says or does – or even THINKS – in a way that is very modern, and I just can’t buy it.

We are who we are. There are many smart women. Most women through the centuries have had to learn to maneuver in whatever societal constrictions they have been allowed. I suspect there were a lot of societal restrictions in New Amsterdam, and Blandine’s freedom to take off with only her male servant, to run off and live with a man not her husband (even though they are both escaping death sentences), to live an unescorted life . . . I just have a hard time buying it. I know how restricted women are even to day. Four hundred years ago, women were more restricted, and worse, we bought into it. We didn’t have a lot of choices.

So I like this book, and I think there is a lot of information that is true of the settlement of New Amsterdam, I loved the geography and the physical descriptions, I loved the maps included, I loved the descriptions of food and living conditions. I do not buy the heroine, not for one minute. I do not believe, in that historical context, she would have been possible.

February 3, 2013 - Posted by | Adventure, Books, Civility, Community, Crime, Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Fiction, Financial Issues, Generational, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Marriage, Mating Behavior, Social Issues, Values, Women's Issues | , , , , ,

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