Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review of "The Orphan Master" by Jean Zimmerman

Though there's a mystery at the heart of this story, the book's strongest suit is its depiction of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in the 1660s. New Amsterdam's Director-General, Petrus Stuyvesant, rules under the auspices of the Dutch West India Company, whose main goal is to make money. Thus, numerous residents of New Amsterdam are traders - dealing in grains, furs, weapons, blankets, household items, etc. Life in the territory can be harsh though - with deadly diseases, serious injuries, and sporadic Indian attacks.

The hard work in New Amsterdam is broken up by the occasional holiday festival, where residents drink, dance and flirt. Excess revelry is risky though, because Director-General Stuyvesant inflicts harsh sentences for bad behavior. One penalty - being bounced around for hours while astride a thin wooden plank - is horribly painful and can leave a miscreant with a bloody broken tailbone. (Ouch!!)

On top of his other concerns Stuyvesant is anxious about the English colonies surrounding New Amsterdam.....and he has good reason to be. Britain is planning to take over the Dutch settlement and sends Edward Drummond - a spy pretending to be a grain merchant - to scope out Dutch defenses and help plot the coup.

One of the cleverest traders in New Amsterdam is a 'she-merchant' named Blandine van Couvering, a beautiful, independent young woman. Unlike most residents of the colony, Blandine is close friends with black people (former slaves) and Indians. A wealthy Dutch businessman named Kees Bayard is almost engaged to Blandine, but his 'conditions' for marrying her are off-putting. In any case, Kees gets jealous when Blandine forms a rapport with Drummond, and this plot line forms an important part of the story.

The main theme of the book involves the disappearance of orphans - one by one - from New Amsterdam. Aet Visser, the orphan master, is in charge of parentless children. He generally sends them to local homes, where the unfortunate kids are often treated like servants or workers (or worse). Several orphans have now completely vanished, and Blandine enlists Drummond's help to look into the matter.

It soon becomes clear that the children are being murdered in a ritualistic fashion and - since New Amsterdam contains its share of odd people - there are plenty of suspects. Moreover, rumors fly about the 'witika' - a mask-wearing Indian demon who's (purportedly) been seen skulking around the forest.

The book has numerous interesting characters including: Martyn Hendrickson - one of the richest, most handsome men in town....but he stinks (literally); Lightning - a half-Indian, half German who was almost scalped; Anna - Aet Visser's maid and the (secret) mother of his children; Antony Angola, a giant black man who protects Blandine; Kitane - an Indian fur trader who knows a lot about the witika; and more.

Chasing and shooting scenes add excitement to the story, and I was intrigued by descriptions of everyday life in New Amsterdam, including food, clothing, wigs (for men), sewing circles (gossip sessions), religious practices, business dealings, family dynamics, and so on.

The story moves along at a steady clip for about two-thirds of the book. Then, Blandine and Drummond - accused of various crimes by resentful and frightened townsfolk - go into hiding. The story slows down at this point and I became anxious to get to the climax.....and the unmasking of the orphan killer.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

Rating: 3.5 stars

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