City of God
, the latest installment in Beverly Swerling's gripping saga of old New York, takes readers to Manhattan's clamorous streets as the nation struggles to find a compromise between slave and free, but hears the drums of war. This is New York when one synagogue is no longer adequate for thousands of Jewish immigrants, when New Evangelicals rouse complacent Protestants with the promise of born-again salvation, and when it first sees Catholic nuns and calls them whores of Satan. It is New York when ships bring the fabulous wealth of nations to its wharves and auction houses, while a short distance away rival gangs fight to the death with broken bottles and teeth filed to points.
Into this churning cauldron comes young Dr. Nicholas Turner. Nick knows that the discoveries of antisepsis and anesthesia promise medical miracles beyond the dreams of ages. He learns that to make such progress reality he must battle the city's corrupt politics and survive the snake pit that is Bellevue Hospital, all while resisting his love for the beautiful Carolina Devrey, his cousin's wife. Sam Devrey, head of the shipping company that bears his name and a visionary who believes the future will be ushered in by mighty clipper ships spreading acres of sail, battles demons of his own. The life he lives with Carolina in the elegant brownstone on newly fashionable Fifth Avenue is a charade meant to disguise his heart's true home, the secret downtown apartment of the exquisite Mei-hua, his Chinese child-bride. The worlds of all four are imperiled when Sam must rely on Nick's skills to save the woman he loves, and only Nick's honor guards Sam's secret. On a night when promises of hellfire seem to become reality and the city nearly burns to the ground, Carolina and Mei-hua confront the truth of their duplicitous marriages. Rage and revenge join love and passion as driving forces in a story played out against the background of the glittering New York that rises from the ashes, where Delmonico's and the Astor House host bejeweled women and top-hatted men, both with the din of commerce in their ears and the glint of gold in their eyes.
As always, Swerling has conjured a dazzling cast of characters to people her city. Among those seeking born-again salvation are Addie Bellingham, befriended by the widow Manon Turner but willing to betray her, and Lilac Langton, who confesses her sins but avoids mentioning that she's a skilled abortionist in a city that has recently made abortion a crime. Ben Klein, a brilliant young physician, must balance devotion to his mentor and dedication to research with duty to the Jewish community. Wilbur Randolf, Carolina's father, indulges her in everything but fails her when she needs him most. Jenny Worthington, Wilbur's longtime mistress, is driven by avarice to make common cause with Fearless Flannagan, a member of a New York police force as corrupt as the city it serves. Ah Chee, Mei-hua's devoted servant, struggles through Manhattan's streets on bound feet and burns incense to the kitchen god in this place of foreign devils. They are all here, heroines and saints, villains and victims, and a vanished New York made to live again in an intricate tale of old debts and new rivalries.
This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Beverly Swerling. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
As a deeply divided America struggles to compromise its way out of the terrible question of slave or free and to avoid civil war, waves of immigrants provide vital labor for New York City's thriving commercial life while unsettling its ruling class. Suddenly Catholics and Jews are no longer tiny minorities, and establishment Protestants must confront fiery Evangelicals who scorn their lack of commitment to biblical truths and bring revival meetings to Broadway. In Beverly Swerling's City of God the raging currents caused by such upheaval make it possible for a man of prominence -- Samuel Devrey -- to be married to both an uptown American wife and a downtown Chinese tai-tai, yet manage to keep his two worlds secret from one another. That is, at least until both women prove themselves unwilling to be mere chattel, and a distant cousin -- Dr. Nicholas Turner -- arrives to head Bellevue hospital and unveils the corruption and betrayal that exist in private and public spheres.
1. In the introductory "How it Happened" section, Swerling offers a brief historical overview of the European origins of Evangelicalism, its confrontation with the anti-religious "rationalist" arguments supported by the Enlightenment, and the way in which the Evangelical movement took root in post-Revolutionary America. Did you find this overview helpful to understanding and enjoying the novel or merely a distraction? What do you think of the notion that religion is essentially a matter of personal interpretation? Do you find any merit in the idea of religious leaders, such as bishops and even a pope, acting as upholders and interpreters of doctrine?
2. The story highlights the stirrings of American feminism in the 1800s. Were you surprised to find it so prominent so early? Do you think those first Catholic nuns in New York would have been seen as representing women who believed themselves entitled to more independence? If so, how does that square with their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience? Compare the story's heroines -- Carolina, Mei-Hua, Manon, and Bella -- and discuss the different ways in which each can be seen as a woman of strength. To which heroic character did you most relate and why? What of the female villains in the story -- Lilac, Jenny, and Addie -- did you understand them and their choices? Did any one of the characters who represent women raised in earlier traditions -- Ah Chee, Lucy, and Celinda -- engage your sympathies? Why?
3. The first time we meet Dr. Nicholas Turner, he is in a hospital tent in Gettysburg right after the battle, and we learn that he treats wounded Confederate and Union soldiers with no regard to their allegiances. Did you find his altruism appealing or annoying? Given Swerling's reputation for historical accuracy, were you surprised to learn of the role of Walt Whitman? What does a novel like this gain from putting Whitman in those first few pages, though he has no other part in the story? Swerling says such devices are part of the bridge she uses to lead the reader comfortably back to the past. Do you find it helpful to have real characters play cameo roles in historical fiction? Nick Turner, on the other hand, is entirely fictional and a major character in the book. Did meeting him in this role in the prologue enrich the story for you? Did what you know about him from the prologue inform your understanding of how he deals with Dr. Grant, Samuel, Carolina, and Mei-hua? Would you rather have had the book open at chapter one and skip the prologue?
4. Why do you think Samuel insisted on watching Mei-hua's feet being bound? If it was an exercise in power, was the Chinese river pirate Di Short Neck correct in his belief that Samuel would not want to witness the child's arch being broken with a heavy stone? What is the connection between power and love in Samuel's life? Between power and pain? Does the fact that his father was always known as Bastard Devrey play a part in the man Samuel became, or was it simply that he was forced to spend so many formative years in China? What about Samuel's development in the story? Did he turn out the way you expected him to? Were you satisfied by how his life ended, or saddened by it?
5. What do you think prompted Nick to move from Providence to New York? Were you surprised to learn that then as now New York City was a magnet for people of ambition? In Nick's case, why was his desire to do medical research more likely to be fulfilled in New York than anywhere else in the country?
6. As we become familiar with different generations throughout the book -- especially over the span of Swerling's entire series -- we get a sense of social evolution and progress. Are there characteristics shared across each generation? And what part do you think they play in telling the story of the physical development of the city?
7. Nick moves into town and with the eyes of a newcomer can quickly spot flaws even in the longstanding traditions. At one point, irritated by all the depravity he sees, he questions himself and his cousin: "Are we complicit, Cousin Manon? Does having anything to do with [Bellevue] make us part of what happens here?" How would you answer him? Do you think resigning in protest would have been the more honorable course?
8. Although seen for only a couple of pages, the stigmatic Eileen O'Connor plays a pivotal role in the story. Are you aware of both historical and contemporary claims of the existence of the stigmata? Do you believe that Manon saw Christ's wounds in the girl's flesh? If she did not, what could have made her believe she did? Why do you think Swerling chooses such a level-headed, sensible character to have this experience? Does it matter if Manon actually saw the blood or only thought she saw it? Do you think it was this vision that caused her to become a Catholic? And having undergone that conversion, why did she choose to become a nun?
9. There was only one synagogue in New York City for some two hundred years; during two decades in the story that number grows to a hundred. Would such a rapid expansion of their presence in New York help the Jews to be accepted, or would it encourage prejudice? Was the early development of Reform Judaism likely to make the Jews more acceptable to their Christian neighbors? Samson Simpson is a real historical character whose public persona (lawyer, elder of Shearith Israel, philanthropist) is accurately portrayed. What do you think of Swerling's placing him in her story and having him interact with her characters? Does this make the story more real for you, or is it a distraction?
10. Throughout this story we are made aware that women were expected to be faithful wives, but to accept that their husbands would occasionally stray. Why do you think Carolina reacted so strongly when she discovered Mei-hua's existence and her role in Samuel's life? And given her feelings, why didn't she divorce him? Would she have been able to survive without the support of her father? How do you feel about Samuel's double life before the fire? Did you change your opinion of him after it? What about the love affair between Nick and Carolina? Do you think Carolina's newfound financial independence was part of her finally giving in to Nick? Why would that make a difference to her? To him?
11. Do you consider Jenny a murderer, even though she did not technically poison Wilbur? What is your feeling about the activities of the story's abortionists: the fictional Lilac Langton and the real Madam Restell? Were you surprised by the story of the development of the abortion laws? What does that history say about our present-day conflicts regarding the subject? Do you consider it important that there was at the time no foundling home in all of the city, and no provision for medical care for the poor? Why do you imagine the "moral reformers" who railed against abortion and sponsored the laws did not address the issue of making provision for the pregnant women or the children they bore? What do you think motivated their opposition to the abortionists?
12. Is Sam Devrey a good father? Compare his role in Mei Lin's life to the one he plays in the lives of Zack and Ceci. What do you think accounts for the difference?
13. In the scene where Carolina and Nick become lovers, "she took his hand and led him to her small and cluttered office, the place in the house where she was most herself." Why do you think Carolina feels most comfortable in her office? What does this say about her, and does it set her apart from other female characters in the book?
14. Does this book influence your understanding of modern-day New York? The novel touches upon cultural and urban changes -- from architecture and urban planning to the social and ethnic background of different areas -- and establishes them as part of the living and breathing history of the city. Did this book change the way you look at New York, or any cosmopolitan city, that you know today?
15. Why do you think Nick had such a violent reaction when he learned of Carolina's involvement with the underground railroad? How does that square with the way he seems to have always understood Carolina's delight in business?
16. Discuss the choices of the next generation of women in the story. Can you think of any way Mei Lin could have avoided marrying Kurt? What direction would the story have to have taken if she had, for example, run away with Fritz before her marriage to Kurt? What do you think has happened to Ceci as the wife of the owner of a thriving Virginia plantation before and during the Civil War? Is it likely she adjusted? Do you want to know more of her story?
Enhance your Book Club
1. Photocopy a street map of modern-day Manhattan and superimpose on it the locations described in the book: the red brick houses on Fourteenth Street, the cobbled paths of Fifth Avenue, and the crammed houses on Cherry Street. What has changed since then? Bonus points: If you have access to New York City, organize a walking tour of the different areas and compare the buildings you imagine stood then against those you see before your eyes today.
2. Research the history of Bellevue hospital and its inner workings. (There's lots about that in the first book in this series, City of Dreams.) Pretend that it's the 1830s and that you are appointed Director, replacing Dr. Tobias Grant. What immediate changes would you call for to improve conditions in the hospital? Take both sides of the debate about germs: given what you know as a person living in the mid 1800s are they a result of the illness or its cause? What would you do about the treatment of the mentally ill?
3. Get hold of a copy of the Olivia de Havilland film Snakepit (1948) and watch it together, remembering that the movie about a woman confined to a state mental hospital was hailed as groundbreaking when it came out -- the woman's only real evidence of mental illness was that she wanted to think for herself -- and that it was well known at the time that Bellevue was the model for the hospital. Why do you imagine de Hailland didn't win the Oscar for her critically acclaimed performance?
4. Find a local medical history museum (such as the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC: http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/ ) and organize a trip. Discuss the developments talked about in the book, such as stethoscopes, ether, amputation flaps, knowledge of germs, and so forth. Do you see any of these in the museum? What other modern-day tools and methods can you name that are directly or indirectly linked to the ones discussed in the book?
5. Find out more details on the New York fire of 1835 -- a fire that caused the modern-day equivalent of $200 million in damage -- and look through photographs and maps. Compare the descriptions of what parts of the city suffered the most damage (pages 208-212) against your map from exercise #1. What challenges kept the fire department from putting out the fire?