Sunday, May 30, 2010

"City of Dreams"

The New York Times bestselling author William Martin is best known for his historical fiction, which has chronicled the lives of the great and the anonymous in American history while bringing to life legendary American locations. His first novel, Back Bay, introduced Boston treasure hunter Peter Fallon, who is still tracking artifacts across the landscape of our national imagination. Martin's subsequent novels, including Harvard Yard, Citizen Washington, and The Lost Constitution have established him, as a “storyteller whose smoothness matches his ambition” (Publishers Weekly).

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, City of Dreams, and reported the following:
A two-part question: is page 69 representative of the rest of the book and would a reader skimming that page be inclined to read on?

A one-word answer: yes.

On page 69, you’ll encounter characters who have just made a momentous decision that has complicated their lives. It has also brought them into the presence of an important – if little known – figure from American history.

So, if you read my books for their storytelling, you’re getting it on that page. And if you read my books for a chance to look history in the eye, you’re getting that, too.

All good storytelling is about people who make decisions and face the consequences. Gil Walker and his sidekick have just decided to desert the Continental Army at Harlem Heights and return to the city at the southern tip of the island. They are the protagonists – the good guys – so they decide that the first thing they will do when they get back to the city is tell the mother of a friend that he has died in battle.

The mother keeps house for Haym Salomon, a little-known figure from American history who will draw one of them into his scheme. Salomon, part of the small Jewish community in Revolutionary America, will become broker for the Continental Congress. Before that, he will enlist Gil Walker in his scheme to smuggle American prisoners of war out of brutal British jails. He is the kind of figure who flies under the radar of most American historians but who made the kind of difference worth reading about.

Much of Page 69 is dialogue between the deserters and Salomon, and it does what storytelling should: it sustains the larger story through a series of a smaller conflicts. I call them the conflicts within the conflict.

Salomon has discovered the pair in his back yard. Now he realizes they are friendly.
Salomon put the pistol back into his belt. “The British are arresting some of us and watching the rest.”

“Why don’t you leave?” asked Gil.

“I should. I’m a Son of Liberty, but” – Salomon shrugged – “I have a business here… and a girl.”

Gil nodded. Business and Women. Those were things that a man could understand more easily than windy ideas like liberty.
Windy ideas like liberty will blow ever harder for Gil as the story advances. So will his involvement with business and women.

What page 69 can’t do is suggest the dimensions of City of Dreams.

It’s not only a historical novel. It’s also a modern suspense thriller, in which a Boston treasure hunter named Peter Fallon searches for a series of 1780 bonds that Gil Walker may once have owned. But as I sweep you through two hundred years of Manhattan history, Peter Fallon learns something that the drama of page 69 suggests: we are all products of the past, of the big history made by men like Haym Salomon, and of the decisions made by the anonymous Gil Walkers.

I like to think that in the best novels, each sentence, paragraph, and page in some way carry the DNA of the bigger story that’s being told. And it’s there on Page 69.
View the City of Dreams trailer, and learn more about the book and author William Martin's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue