City of Orphans

In Avi’s City of Orphans, thirteen-year-old Maks — ” ‘with a k.’ Danish. Didn’t get changed” — works as a “newsie” on New York City’s Lower East Side, hawking The World newspaper, among the rest of the hustlers selling “jim-jam” in so many different languages that “it’s like the cheapest boarding house in Babel.” For this, he earns eight cents a day, which he takes home to help with the fifteen-dollar-a-month rent on the three-room tenement flat he shares with Mama, Papa, two sisters, three brothers, and a French boarder. That is, if the Plug Uglies don’t get to him first.

The Plug Uglies — named after a real gang — are run by the fearsome Bruno and shake down all The World‘s newsies for their earnings, hoping to put the paper out of business, though Maks suspects someone higher up is “greasing” Bruno for his deeds. This is during the Great Panic of 1893, “before Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt started bending things straight,” and “mugs” like Maks can’t even trust the “coppers,” who are always “ready to be bribed if you have the clink.”

So when Maks’s older sister, Emma, who works at the newly opened Waldorf Hotel — Papa says she got the job because she is so pretty; Mama says it’s because she is so clean — is accused of stealing a watch and locked up in the Tombs, Maks is sure she’s been framed. With the help of a street girl, Willa — born “Waddah” — who “smells like sauerkraut gone south” and carries a big stick, and a tubercular ex-Pinkerton detective, Maks goes further than he ever has before — 42nd Street — to solve the case. There, he discovers indoor showers, “a parade of rich people,” and the root of two corrupt plans.