As part of Chunkster Challenge 2009, I committed to reading three to five books of 450 pages or more. For my first "chunky" book, I selected Metropolis by Elizabeth Gaffney, which caught my eye after reading the blurb on the back cover. I am attracted to stories of the immigrant experience, and once I got started, I was hooked.
The story begins with a young German immigrant who wakes up in the middle of a fire. He works in P.T. Barnum’s circus stable, and soon watches the place go up in flames, after he is only able to free several animals. He is then accused of setting the fire, and struggles for the rest of the story on many levels – to avoid the authorities, maintain his ever-changing identity, and keep his wits about him as he is followed by gang members and heart-breaking memories. He falls in love with a tough gang leader’s girl, works for a time in the sewers, and then works on the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. This character is endearing, pathetic, and heroic all at the same time.
The story unfolds in 1860s New York, and gives the reader glimpses of several facets of American history. Dietary and medicinal practices, emerging feminism, cultural conflicts and pride, and the physical and ideological “building” of a nation by its immigrants, are all part of a story that kept me engaged from beginning to end.
I highly recommend this book.