Historian Jean Zimmerman has written for years about the changing roles of women in America. In her first novel, The Orphanmaster, she tells the story of a determined woman trader in 1660's New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony at the foot of Manhattan, who tracks a killer of local orphans. Jean has lived in and around New York all of her life and has written extensively about the history of Manhattan.
We asked Jean Zimmerman about lower Manhattan (New Amsterdam) as the setting for The Orphanmaster and she offered the following insights about her choice of setting. Many thanks to Jean for sharing her thoughts with us.
Why New Amsterdam?
I first grew interested in the Manhattan settlement of the mid seventeenth century when I researched a nonfiction book about a gutsy, determined woman who lived in the town and became extremely wealthy as a fur trader. I learned about her work and her family and the drinking establishments and shipping lines of the town. But there was a limit to what I could use because I was writing about a real person and women’s lives are so much less documented than men’s. When I dove into the culture of New Amsterdam looking to write the novel I found even more substance than I had had before… plus I was able to play, to concoct, to create in a way I couldn’t with a nonfiction history.
Did you have a connection to New York (and its history) before writing The Orphanmaster?
I have lived in or just outside New York City for my whole life. I attended college and graduate school at Columbia University, married in the city, raised my daughter here. The history of the city has always fascinated me – what history is left standing after the centuries of building over other buildings. I’ve lived in various parts of Manhattan, and always been drawn to the financial district, where history is maintained in the shape and layout of the streets and even in their names, a reminder of the days of New Amsterdam. Stone Street, Pearl Street, Broadway, or, as the Dutch called it, The Broad Way.
What is the importance of the New Amsterdam to this story?
New Amsterdam was a volatile, energized place in 1663, when the story begins. Eighteen languages could be heard on the streets. Beaver was king, and people were flooding in from all over the world to make a fortune in the fur industry. Immigrants were intent upon making new lives, starting over. It is all of this coming together that made it a great place to set a novel. Also there is the sense of the inevitable, that no one on Manhattan owns up to – that the English are on the verge of taking over, which they do in 1664. The drama of this transitional moment inherent.
Did you ever consider setting The Orphanmaster somewhere else?
My book grew out of the very cobblestones of Old New York. It’s about a place as much as people or events. It wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.
What's a book you love for its ability to tell a story of a place?
I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, and her ability to evoke place, the landscapes and mansions of Tudor England is magical. I’m also under the sway of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, whose western landscapes are brilliantly infused with a palpable sense of doom.