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Paradise Alley

Paradise Alley

4.6 15
by Kevin Baker

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They came by boat from a starving land—and by the Underground Railroad from Southern chains—seeking refuge in a crowded, filthy corner of hell at the bottom of a great metropolis. But in the terrible July of 1863, the poor and desperate of Paradise Alley would face a new catastrophe—as flames from the war that was tearing America in two reached


They came by boat from a starving land—and by the Underground Railroad from Southern chains—seeking refuge in a crowded, filthy corner of hell at the bottom of a great metropolis. But in the terrible July of 1863, the poor and desperate of Paradise Alley would face a new catastrophe—as flames from the war that was tearing America in two reached out to set their city on fire.

Editorial Reviews

Houston Chronicle
“[A] huge success....fascinating, instructive, never pedantic.”
New York Post
“A page-turning epic.”
Christian Science Monitor
“[An] extraordinary talent....Kevin Baker is quickly altering the landscape of American historical fiction.”
Edmonton Journal
“Paradise Alley probes the primal mysteries of ...love and war with skill, drama and deep humanity.”
New York Times
“Rich in color and drama.... Extraordinary.... A triumph.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Extraordinary....Baker achieves a hallucinatory realism packed with sensory detail.”
Hartford Courant
“Paradise Alley is a skillful historical reconstruction — an exploration of love and loyalty.”
Denver Post
“A rare and special work.”
“[A] richly detailed, impeccably researched drama.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
Baltimore Sun
“Inspired.... vividly entertaining, and its themes are as timely as any drawn from this morning’s newspaper. ”
Entertainment Weekly
“An engrossing epic”
The New Yorker
This follow-up to "Dreamland," Baker's 1999 novel about Coney Island, is both an example of his talents as a historian and, occasionally, a warning about the power of facts to upend the delicate balance of fiction. With painstaking accuracy, the author re-creates the 1863 Draft Riots, in which President Lincoln's announcement of a new conscription law provoked thousands of New Yorkers, primarily Irish immigrants, to rampage through the city, looting and murdering. The principal characters, a trio of working-class women, furnish a rich domestic perspective that complements the public record. Unfortunately, Baker's liberal use of other voices -- including those of a reporter, a thug, and a fireman -- ultimately proves distracting.
Publishers Weekly
In his second New York novel (after Dreamland), Baker takes a grisly event-the 1863 Civil War draft riots-and crafts a terrifying, human story bursting with all the calamity, brutality and power of the riots themselves, which may have been the worst civic disturbance in U.S. history. Baker, an American Heritage writer, bases his work largely on historic events-Lincoln's announcement of the draft law did in fact propel thousands of New Yorkers, mainly Irish, to burn and loot the city and murder hundreds of innocents. The book follows the difficult lives of Ruth, Deirdre and Maddy, three women living on Paradise Alley, a dingy Lower East Side passageway, during the five days of riots. Each chapter alternates among many voices, however; in addition to the women, Baker speaks through a New York Tribune reporter, an escaped slave, an immigrant boxer turned criminal, an army private, a volunteer fireman and other characters. The formula works brilliantly, giving Baker the opportunity to flash back to Ruth's survival of the Irish potato famine; the voyage she and so many Irish made from their ravaged country to America; and her future husband's journey from slavery in Charleston, S.C., to freedom in New Jersey. The combination of momentous events, tellingly real aspects of lower-class 19th-century life, and raw emotions like fear and pride make this a viscerally affecting story. Baker intertwines love, violence, history, adventure and social commentary to give readers an invigorating, heartbreaking tale of the immigrant experience. Agent, Henry Dunow. (Oct. 15) Forecast: Like Dreamland, Baker's latest will undoubtedly attract much attention, based on his name and strong word of mouth. It will be especially popular in New York, although an eight-city author tour and national advertising should bring him numerous readers outside of the city. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In his follow-up to Dreamland, Baker continues to bring New York City history to life. This time he focuses on the Draft Riots of 1863, when rampaging Irish immigrants literally burned the city. To tell the story of those three fateful days in July, Baker employs multiple narrators: Herbert Robinson, a reporter for the Tribune, and Maddy, his Irish mistress; Billie Dove, an escaped slave, and his wife, Ruth, an Irishwoman who survived the potato famine; and Johnny Dolan, a murderous Irish thug, his upwardly mobile sister Deirdre, and her husband, Tom O'Kane, now serving in the Union army. The characters not only describe the riot but also recall the events that brought them all to New York City's Paradise Alley. Baker, who served as chief researcher of The American Century, seamlessly weaves actual events and figures into his fictional narrative. However, while the novel skillfully illuminates a little-known episode in this country's history, few of the characters are particularly engaging or likable. For larger fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/02.] Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The New York City draft riots of 1863 provide an appropriately violent subject for this period melodrama from the historical researcher (for Harry Evans’s The American Century) and novelist (Dreamland, 1999, etc.).

The eponymous setting is a Dantesque slum where the "only sound heard in the street is the buzzing of flies, hovering over the heaps of garbage and the horse carcasses." That uncomfortably vivid description is offered by Herbert Willis Robinson, a New York Tribune reporter who drifts incognito throughout the Alley and environs, recording the destructive rage of an impoverished (mostly immigrant) populace reacting to the wholesale drafting of workingmen unable to pay their way out of military service. Though Robinson alone speaks as a first-person narrator, he’s one of several major characters whose viewpoints relay the increasingly complex action. Foremost is Ruth Dove, a rag-picker who has survived Ireland’s Potato Famine and the attentions of Dangerous Johnny Dolan, an embittered thief and murderer recently out of prison, and a ticking time bomb aimed in the direction of Ruth (with whom he fled Ireland, and who possesses a "treasure" Johnny wants back), her husband Billy, a runaway slave, and their five biracial children. The story of Ruth’s ordeal during "The Year of Slaughter" (1846) and escape to America is neatly juxtaposed with the entwined present fates and past histories of several other vigorously drawn characters. Prominent among them: the aforementioned Johnny, a vicious destructive force of nature; his long-suffering sister Deirdre O’Kane and her husband Tom, a wounded Civil War veteran; stoical Billy Dove, who labors against insuperable odds to exemplify thesimple goodness his name suggests; truculent prostitute Maddy Boyle (who’s "kept"—though not controlled—by Robinson); wily Tammany Hall politico Finn McCool; and numerous other briefly glimpsed figures. Paradise Alley is probably too long, and the grisly, frequently nauseating naturalistic detail is laid on with a trowel. But it’s deftly plotted, fabulously detailed, and never less than absorbing.

An authoritative blend of documentary realism and driving narrative that’s just about irresistible.

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Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
City of Fire Trilogy Series , #2
Edition description:
P.S. Insights, Interviews & More
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.12(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


He is coming.

Ruth leaned out the door as far as she dared, peering down Paradise Alley to the west and the south. Past the other narrow brick and wood houses along Cherry Street, slouching against each other for support. The grey mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats growing higher every day since the street cleaners had gone out.

Fire bells were already ringing off in the Sixth Ward, somewhere near the Five Points. The air thick with dust and ash and dried horse droppings, the sulfurous emissions of the gasworks along the river, and the rendering plants and the hide-curing plants. It was not yet six in the morning but she could feel the thin linen of her dress sticking to the soft of her back.

"The good Lord, in all His mercy, must be readyin' us for Hell -- "

She searched the horizon for any sign of relief. Their weather came from the west, the slate-grey, fecund clouds riding in over the Hudson. That was how she expected him to come, too, fierce and implacable as a summer storm. His rage breaking over them all.

He is coming

But there was no storm just yet. The sky was still a dull, jaundiced color, the blue tattered and wearing away at the edges. She ventured a step out into the street, looking hard, all the way downtown, past the church steeples and the block-shaped warehouses, the dense thicket of masts around lower Manhattan.

There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual shapeless forms lying motionless in the doorways. A ragged child with a stick, a few dogs. A fruit peddler with his bright yellow barrow. Hiswares, scavenged from the barges over on the West Side, already pungent and overripe.

Nothing coming. But then, it wasn't likely he would come from the west anyway --

With a muted cry she swung around, then ducked back into her house, bolting the door behind her while she fought for breath. The idea that he could have been coming up behind her the whole time. She remembered how quickly he could move. She could feel his hands on her, could see the yellow dog's bile rising in his eyes. That mercilessanger, concentrated solely upon her --

She had not truly believed it before now -- not even after Deirdre had come over to tell her yesterday afternoon. Standing there on her doorstone, one foot still in the street as if she were hanging on to the shore. Wearing her modest black church dress, her beautiful face even sterner than usual. She was a regular communicant, Sundays and Fridays -- no doubt especially agitated to have to see Ruth on the Lord's day. She told her the news in a low voice, all but whispering to her. Deirdre herself, whispering, as if somehow he might overhear.

He is coming.

He had come -- all the way back from California. It was a fearsome, unimaginable distance. But then, what was that to a man who had gone as far as he had already? A friend of Tom's, a stevedore, had seen him on the docks -- as stunned as if he had seen Mose himself stepping off a clipper ship, back from his bar in the Sandwich Islands. Coming down the gangplank with that peculiar, scuttling, crablike walk of his, fierce and single-minded as ever. Moving fast, much faster than you thought at first, so that Tom's friend had quickly lost him in the crowd waiting by the foot of the gangplank. Already disappeared off into the vastness of the City --

Which meant -- what? The mercy of a few days? While he found himself a room in the sailors' houses along Water Street, began to work his way relentlessly through the bars and blind pigs, sniffing out any news. Sniffing out them.

Or maybe not even that. Maybe he had hit it right off, had found, in the first public house he tried, a garrulous drunk who would tell him for the price of a camphor-soaked whiskey where he might find a certain mixed-race couple, living down in one of the nigger nests along Paradise Alley --

No. Ruth calmed herself by sheer force of will. Picking up a broom, she made her hands distract her. Sweeping her way scrupulously around the hearth, under the wobbly-legged table even though she knew there was no need, they would never live here again after this morning.

When she made herself think about it logically, it wasn't likely he could be that lucky. He had never had much luck, after all -- not even with herself -- and his own face would work against him. He couldn't go out too bold. They would remember him still, after what had happened with Old Man Noe. Men would remember him, would remember that, and keep their distance. Maybe even turn him in, for the reward --

They still had time. A little, anyway. She and Billy had talked it out, deep into the night. Time enough for Billy to go up to his job at the Colored Orphans' Asylum in the Fifth Avenue today, and collect his back wages. Then they would have something to start on, at least, to see them through up to Boston, or Canada.

Why aren't we in Canada already? We should be there --

She swept faster, in her anger and her frustration, kicking up the fine, black grit that crept inexorably through the windows and over the transom, covering the whole City over, every day. They had talked about leaving, all these years, but somehow they had never actually gone. She had put it down to Billy's moodiness and his obstinacy, the lethargy that seemed to hold him sometimes, particularly when he'd been drinking.

Yet it was more than that, and she knew it. They both felt safer here -- on their block, miserable as it was, in the bosom of their friends and neighbors. They told themselves there would be risks if they ran, perhaps even worse risks. A white woman and a black man, with their five mixed-race children ...

Paradise Alley. Copyright © by Kevin Baker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Kevin Baker is the bestselling author of the novels Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Sometimes You See It Coming. He is a columnist for American Heritage magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Harper's, and other periodicals. He lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Ellen Abrams, and their cat, Stella.

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Paradise Alley 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read this book twice and plan to read it again in a couple of years. I'm captivated by the setting, the period, and the characters. This is just a great book that is thoughtfully written and carefully researched. Did you know that bankers in NYC would place bets on the outcome of Civil War battles?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kevin Baker has done a remarkable job of bringing back to life a part of New York's and America's history in his marvelous 'Paradise Alley'. Unlike other books of historical fiction, Mr. Baker does not bog down the reader by impressing him/her with his research. The story and characters come first, and this is what separates Mr. Baker from other writers of historical fiction. Pick up this terrific book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Paradise Alley is one of the best new novels of the year. Set in the Civil War years, the author brings the characters to life.
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Richard Jones More than 1 year ago
great prose detailing an important historical time. one of my top ten favs
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Guest More than 1 year ago
enjoyed the book. it took a little time to retain all the characters as each one is an individual chapter and the chapters alternate back and forth between these individuals and the events and circumstances associated with them. interesting as a Canadian to learn that in Lincoln's war an individual with $300.00 could buy his way out of military service by paying some poor individual to take his place...things really have not changed that much in the last 150 years. a good read...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love historical fiction and who is better to write one than a historian. The narrative form in this novel is superb. A must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dreamland, an extraordinary work, has found its match in Paradise Alley. Brutal, sometimes to an extreme, is captures a none- too-pretty picture of New York in its most violent age.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am captivated by this work. It is historically accurate in every detail. I heartily recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating riveting book. Kevin Baker captures the feeling, look and even the smells of a different New York. I was interested in all the characters and their fates in the tumultuous time of the draft riots. He brought the period alive, and New York itself resonated as the main character.