The Orphanmaster: A Novel of Early Manhattan

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A love story wrapped around a murder mystery, set in seventeenth-century Manhattan

In 1663 in the hardscrabble colony of New Amsterdam—today’s lower Manhattan—orphan children are going missing and residents suspect a serial killer. The list of possible culprits is long and strange. Among those looking into the mystery are a shrewd young Dutch woman, Blandine van Couvering, and a dashing Englishman, Edward Drummond, whose newfound romance is threatened by horrible accusations.


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A love story wrapped around a murder mystery, set in seventeenth-century Manhattan

In 1663 in the hardscrabble colony of New Amsterdam—today’s lower Manhattan—orphan children are going missing and residents suspect a serial killer. The list of possible culprits is long and strange. Among those looking into the mystery are a shrewd young Dutch woman, Blandine van Couvering, and a dashing Englishman, Edward Drummond, whose newfound romance is threatened by horrible accusations.

            In this spellbinding work of historical fiction, Jean Zimmerman relates the harsh realities of life in early Manhattan, re-creating the sights, smells, and textures of the rough settlement surrounded by wilderness and subject to political turmoil. Compulsively readable and filled with New York history, The Orphanmaster will delight fans of Caleb Carr, Hilary Mantel, and Geraldine Brooks.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for The Orphanmaster:

The Orphanmaster is a sweeping novel of great and precise imaginative intelligence; it's also the most entertaining and believable historical novel I've read in years. Jean Zimmerman is a debut novelist who already writes like an old master. Read any page of The Orphanmaster and you'll become an instant fan.” – Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life and Chang and Eng

“Jean Zimmerman's seventeenth-century New Amsterdam teems with enough intrigue, lust, and madness to give our twenty-first-century Big Apple a run for its money. And money is what drives this book – liberating, corrupting, forming the only bulwark against a terrifying, chaotic New World. Zimmerman's wit and humanity shine light in a dark woods, creating an uncommonly rich debut.” – Sheri Holman, author of The Dress Lodger

 “Here’s American history turned inside out, animated by Jean Zimmerman’s prodigious imagination. Monsters lurk in the shadows, chaos presses in, legends come alive, and one adventure leads with irresistible force to the next. The Orphanmaster is a breathtaking achievement.” – Joanna Scott, author of Arrogance and Various Antidotes

“[A] compulsively readable, heartbreaking, and grisly mystery set in a wild colonial America.” ALA Booklist

“A feisty young Dutch woman, an English spy, and a local demon all cross paths in 1663 New Amsterdam, in this Ludlumesque historical thriller…a successful mix of historical fiction, spy thriller, and horror.” Library Journal

"As in the best historical fiction, [Zimmerman] has created a kind of truce between the authority of the past and the accessibility of the present, revealing to us what it once meant to be alive, and what that history means to us now ... on nearly every page there is some unobtrusively offered word or description, of food, of architecture, of dress, that brings the period and its people into clearer focus." – USA Today

"Absorbing period fiction with the requisite colorful characters of the era." – The New York Daily News

The New York Times Book Review
…the ideal historical mystery for readers who value the history as much as the mystery. Set in New Amsterdam in the mid-17th century, Zimmerman's nicely flowing narrative is animated by robust characters who thrive on the edges of civilization.
—Marilyn Stasio
Publishers Weekly
Zimmerman (The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty) uses 1663 New Amsterdam as the intriguing backdrop for her promising fiction debut. The prologue sets the stage for the eventual integration of the two main plot lines: the worldwide hunt for the surviving judge commissioners who signed the death warrant for Charles I, marked for death by Charles II, and the disappearance of Piddy Gullee, an eight-year-old African-American girl later found murdered in the forest north of the New Amsterdam wall by a terrifyingly tall creature that looks to be half-man and half-beast. When the Dutch authorities show little interest in Piddy’s fate because of her race, Blandine van Couvering, a “she-merchant,” pursues the matter, and discovers that a number of young orphans have gone missing recently, possibly the victims of the witika, a flesh-eating demon from Algonquin legend. Fans of Eliot Pattison’s Bone Rattler will find a lot to like. 5-city author tour. Agent: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson, and Lerner. (June)
Library Journal
A feisty young Dutch woman, an English spy, and a local demon all cross paths in 1663 New Amsterdam, in this Ludlumesque historical thriller. Orphaned as a child, Blandine van Couvering now lives by her wits as a trader. She also looks out for the orphans around the small town and keeps a friendship with Visser, the appointed Orphanmaster. But first one orphan disappears, and then another is found molested and murdered. Evidence of a witika, a fiend of Native American folklore, is found near the remains. And what of the suave Englishman, Drummond, just come to town? Is he an honest grain trader, or something else? As the little bodies pile up, fears run wild. Fingers are pointed, and the gibbet is prepared. Making her fiction debut, Zimmerman (Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance; The Women of the House) trails red herrings all over her story, while helping the reader understand the jitters of living on the frontier. VERDICT This is a successful mix of historical fiction, spy thriller, and horror. A wide variety of readers will enjoy this. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/11.]—W. Keith McCoy, Somerset Cty. Lib. Syst., Bridgewater, NJ
Kirkus Reviews
Historian Zimmerman (Love, Fiercely, 2012, etc.) debuts as a novelist with a gruesome murder mystery concerning a serial killer in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan. British spy Edward Drummond arrives in New Amsterdam in 1663 to prepare the way for Britain to wrest power from the Dutch and is immediately drawn into a love-hate attraction with Blandine van Couvering. A plucky beauty making a name for herself as a trader with the Dutch West India Company, 22-year-old Blandine is part of New Amsterdam society and practically engaged to Kees Bayard, Petrus Stuyvesant's nephew. Blandine also has a special, daughterly relationship with Aet Visser, the colony's official orphanmaster. Visser takes charge of children newly orphaned in the colony--including Blandine, whose merchant parents drowned at sea when she was 15; charming but wild Martyn Hendrickson from one of the richest families in the colony; and Martyn's half-Indian friend, Lightning, and his twin sister, Anna, now Visser's common-law wife--but more lucratively Visser handles orphans imported from Europe, supposedly for adoption but more often to serve as cheap labor. Morally ambiguous Visser cares equally about his charges' welfare and his own pocketbook. Suspecting a British family has switched the child (with an inheritance) that he placed in their care for another, but hampered by the language barrier, he enlists Drummond to investigate further. Meanwhile, children, all of them orphans, have begun disappearing from the colony. Their remains are found surrounded by talismans relating to Indian demons called Witika known to drive their victims to madness and even cannibalism. Soon the citizens are gripped with fear. Drummond and Blandine join forces, helped by Blandine's African bodyguard and half-crazy Indian trading partner, to search for the serial killer. When Blandine finally rejects Kees for Drummond, Kees wants revenge, and Drummond is arrested as a spy. Lightning plants evidence that draws suspicion of witchcraft onto Blandine. But by then, readers know the true identity of the murderer. A disturbing, often creepy melodrama, thick with historically accurate detail.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143123538
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/30/2013
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 363,686
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jean Zimmerman

Jean Zimmerman is the author several works of nonfiction, including Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance and The Women of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty. She lives in Ossining, New York. This is her first novel.

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Reading Group Guide

New Amsterdam, 1663. In the tiny Dutch colonial enclave that will soon become New York City, the settlers drink their beer, consume their sausage, and haggle over religion and beaver pelts. All seems well on the surface, but there are specters haunting the town. Hostile clashes with native peoples remain a constant danger. From both the north and south, the expansion of English colonial interests jeopardizes the independence of New Amsterdam. But the greatest threat is mysterious and unthinkably brutal. One by one, the children of both the town and the settlement of Africans just outside its walls are vanishing, although, curiously, the only victims are orphans. As anxiety escalates among the people of the island, more grisly facts emerge: the children have not only been abducted, but killed and cannibalized.

Suspicions mount, falling upon several denizens of the colony. What sordid plots might be brewing in the mind of Lightning, a half–European, half–native man whose ominous presence sends chills through all but the most complacent colonists? What is really going on within the mansion of the wealthy and influential Hendrickson clan, a glowering edifice that looms darkly and enigmatically among the fashionable homes on Market Street? How much trust can one afford to place in the colony’s governor, the stern, one–legged Petrus Stuyvesant? And, perhaps, most important, what role in the disappearances is being played by the seemingly kindly Aet Visser, the man officially charged with protecting the welfare of the colony’s orphans? Practical and industrious, the orphanmaster has helped countless children to better lives, though his own moneybags have fattened in the process. Visser is known to all as “an angel of death, appearing whenever parents perished.” (p. 32) However, the question of which side of his nature will triumph over him—death or the angel—remains unsettled.

The task of solving the mystery falls upon an unlikely quartet of characters: Blandine van Couvering, the beautiful and shrewd young “she–merchant” who has learned to make her way in a man’s world; Edward Drummond, a loyal subject of the English crown bent on tracking down and assassinating the men who sent his late sovereign Charles I to the scaffold; Antony Angola, a seven–foottall African who once escaped execution only because no one could find a rope strong enough to hang him, and Kitane, a native trader given to obsessive guilt and bizarre fits of madness. Also in the mix, a mute orphan boy called William, who starts out victimized and winds up a hero. In each other, Edward and Blandine find love. But will they find the killers of the children before scandal and horror bring their world crashing down?

Tense, relentlessly paced, insightful in its philosophical and social commentary, The Orphanmaster takes the genre of the thriller literally and figuratively into parts unknown. A true roller coaster of a novel, it raises its readers to the pinnacles of horror and plunges them into the depths of despair—and, remarkably, lets them off somewhere in the general vicinity of redemption. From its chilling start to its heart–pounding conclusion, The Orphanmaster is an unforgettable ride.


A graduate of Barnard College, Jean Zimmerman holds an MFA in poetry from Columbia University. A well–established writer of nonfiction, Zimmerman published Tailspin: Women at War in the Wake of Tailhook in 1995. In researching her 2006 historical study, The Women of the House: How a Colonial She– Merchant Built a Mansion, a Fortune, and a Dynasty,Zimmerman acquired much of the factual knowledge that now informs her first novel, The Orphanmaster.


Q. You’ve had considerable success as a writer of nonfiction. How did it feel to make the transition to fiction?

I’ve always considered it an incredible privilege to write nonfiction, as you get to snoop in private lives via letters, diaries, etc., in order to tell your story. That said, in writing on some historical subjects, particularly the lives of women, these sources are not always readily available. I found that I could use the research I had done and expand upon it imaginatively in a way that was extremely satisfying.

Q. To produce its powerful effects, The Orphanmaster mingles historical fact with some imaginative storytelling. What are some of the more surprising discoveries that you happened on in your research?

I found a map that was drawn in 1660, the first street plan of Manhattan, which conveys every

street, structure, meadow and garden in the settlement. It was the world of my characters, and it was the geographical jumping–off point of my work. Also vital was the discovery of the orphanmaster function, an official job that was needed because of the dire trend toward parental deaths through sickness, shipwrecks or indian incursions. And I also was surprised to learn about the sport of pulling the goose!

Q. Your novel goes rather hard on one of your real–life historical figures, Governor Petrus Stuyvesant. Why were you so rough on him?

Stuyvesant was a complex man. Not readily likable because of his high–handed policies—no one

wanted the taverns shut on Sundays!—he also created order in a time when New Amsterdam was going a bit out of control. He was somebody whose domineering personality would definitely create friction with the other characters I portray. Historically, he was so hated that the colonists refused to fight alongside him to resist the English takeover in 1664.

Q. One of your nonfiction books concerns a colonial–era she–merchant similar to The Orphanmaster’s heroine, Blandine van Couvering. What are the major differences between the fictional heroine and her reallife precursor?

For my earlier book, The Women of the House, I researched a trader named Margaret Hardenbroeck, who through smarts and sheer force of will became the richest woman in the colony that would become New York. She–merchants were common in New Amsterdam, where there were roughly two hundred female traders out of a population of 1,500 settlers—a very high percentage. Women such as Margaret Hardenbroeck (and Blandine van Couvering in The Orphanmaster) loved the excitement of commerce, especially the high–end, high–status commodities like fur. Blandine is a young merchant, still earnestly trying to work her way up. But she feels the thrill of trade in her bones.

Q. Blandine knows a surprising amount about seventeenth–century armaments and, by extension, so do you. How did you come by your expertise?

Research is a writer’s best friend, an area of my work that I have come to love and rely upon in nonfiction. And weapons are a fascinating subject to learn about. They were crucial to the lives of the

people of the New Netherland frontier. Although not much of a gun freak myself, I read in the field and consulted with people I know who are knowledgeable.

Q. In Blandine and in the villain Martyn Hendrickson, you present an interesting theological diptych: one atheist whose character we find ourselves admiring and another who is utterly contemptible. What thoughts did you mean to suggest by introducing the implied comparison between the two?

While Martyn has abandoned God altogether, or has completely subverted Christian ideals to his

own twisted ends, Blandine is in quest of a new definition of God. Ever since the incomprehensible tragedy of losing her parents and sister in a shipwreck, she no longer finds the idea of God as personal savior compelling. Blandine is a questing soul, searching for a new belief system, while Martyn has settled upon a particularly vicious form of nihilism.

Q. In a fairly early chapter, you ask, “How does the superior man live in a godless world?” (p. 65) Nice question. Any answers?

Drummond’s hallmarks are courage, kindness and reserve. He feels the need to change the picture, to change his idea of god, so he does not, indeed, inhabit a godless world. In this, he attempts to align himself with a larger order, terrible and immense, that he especially perceives in the staggering beauty of the natural world.

Q. Your hero, Edward Drummond, observes that in an old–world cathedral it’s easy to believe, whereas in the American wilderness it is supremely difficult to maintain that God exists. And yet, historically, America’s religious revivals have been especially vigorous in remote, rural areas, where God is felt to be present in the silence of the natural world. Is Edward just wrong, or is there some way to defend his observation?

We have to remember the seventeenth–century first–growth wilderness that confronted Drummond

was very different from the tamer, well–explored woods and cultivated farmlands of the eighteenth– and nineteenth–century Great Awakenings. God for Drummond cannot be defined in human terms, since that would be a prideful distortion of such immensity. Rather, he sees the sacred as “[a]n entity, an endlessness, a totality.”(p. 145)

Q. The Orphanmaster features scenes of horrific violence and mayhem—possibly off–putting to some, certainly engrossing to others. What emotions do you yourself experience when writing these portions of your novels?

It’s really more about telling the story, getting the characters right, considering how they relate to each other. That’s what makes creating a thriller exciting and powerful. At the same time, I myself did feel challenged at some points in the writing, and sad when some characters suffered or didn’t survive.

Q. Drummond’s idea of God is strongly shaped by his reading of Baruch Spinoza. For the uninitiated, can you briefly explain Spinoza’s philosophy of religion and why it might appeal to someone like Drummond?

Drummond has lived a full life and has seen violent and challenging things. He is embittered and yet

still searching for meaning. Spinoza was the supreme rationalist. He wore a signet ring with the inscription

“cautiously,” and proposed treating theological questions in the same way a mathematician, for example, might treat a triangle. In Spinoza’s view, which Drummond is coming to adopt, the old–world god has ceased to exist, to be replaced by a more abstract, less personal but more powerful sense of the sacred.

Q. One of your minor characters opines, “The day when a corporation is accorded the same standing as a country, with all the rights attending to that status, will be a sad day indeed.” (p. 372) That also sounded like a somewhat “presentist” comment to us. Any thoughts?

Since all writers exist in the present, all writing is unavoidably presentist. I would say that it is natural to use your current–day intellectual framework even when you write about the past. It would be dishonest not to. And it can be fun to enliven a historical text with sidelong glances at the modern. But I also believe

the rules are different for fiction, nonfiction and memoir. At times I enjoy engaging in what I hope is a playful insouciance.

Q. Are there other ways in which you think your novel can be read as a commentary on present–day America?

At the time of The Orphanmaster, eighteen languages were spoken in New Amsterdam. The makeup

of Manhattan is much the same today—immigrants, businesspeople, criminals, orphans, women striving to make something of themselves. The novel addresses in some part how the various ethnicities and races get along with each other. The heroine and hero of the book are the ones that show the most tolerance, understanding and sympathy for other people, even those not like them superficially. This is our mandate for today as well.

Q. What inspired you to center your book on the year 1663?

It was a period of transition and discovery, danger and excitement. Colonists were arriving in

Manhattan to create new lives for themselves. Beaver was king, and fortunes were being made in the fur industry. I chose the precise year because the frictions between Holland and England were about to play out in a way that ultimately gave us the culture we have today.

Q. What remains today of Blandine and Drummond’s New Amsterdam?

The Manhattan of today is still haunted by the ghost of New Amsterdam. New York’s commercial

imperative and devotion to progress have buried the past in cement, but the streets of the past exist largely as they did. You can walk Stone Street, Pearl Street or Broadway and see just where Blandine kept her dwelling–house or where she made her way across the canal at low tide. You can feel a poignant vestige of what was, and if you imagine intently, still hear the creaking of the Dutch windmills.

Q. What are you working on now?

A novel about a girl who was raised in the wild, displayed at a sideshow in Virginia City, Nevada, and adopted by a well–to–do couple in 1875 Manhattan to be trained up as a debutante. Mysterious killings ensue, and she must track down the murderer before he gets to her. A darker side of the Gilded Age.


  • Like many modern thrillers, The Orphanmaster describes sexual and violent episodes that would have been off–limits to writers of earlier generations. Does Zimmerman ever cross a line in your mind? Do you think there should be any taboos in respectable fiction, or should everything be fair game?
  • What, in your own opinion, are the essential ingredients in good historical fiction? How well does Zimmerman’s evocation of seventeenth–century New Amsterdam live up to your criteria?
  • Forthright, independent and accepting of racial minorities, Blandine van Couvering carries herself in a highly modern fashion. In a historical novel, what is more important: that the characters “fit” their historical surroundings or that they appeal to our current ideas of heroic behavior?
  • Some scenes in The Orphanmaster are timed to coincide with Christian holidays. What symbolic import do you find in the timing of these episodes?
  • Aet Visser, the orphanmaster of Zimmerman’s title, is actually just a supporting character in the story (albeit an important one). Why do you think Zimmerman chose to make him her title character?
  • Other characters in the novel frequently underestimate Blandine because of her gender. How does she learn to use their prejudices to her advantage?
  • The townspeople of Zimmerman’s New Amsterdam function almost as a character in her novel. What is the personality of that composite “character,” and how does it influence the unfolding of the story?
  • What dimensions does the subplot of Edward Drummond’s hunt for English regicides contribute to The Orphanmaster?
  • Among the gallery of orphans in Zimmerman’s novel, which ones did you find most emotionally compelling, and why?
  • How does Zimmerman address religion in The Orphanmaster? How did you respond to her comments on the subject?
  • The Orphanmaster represents the clash among a variety of cultures: African, Native, Dutch and English.Which of these does Zimmerman seem to respect most highly, and why?
  • The collisions of the various cultures in the novel have both beneficial effects, like Blandine’s friendship with Antony, and horrific effects, like the conspiracy to slaughter the orphans. What factors seem to make the difference as to whether a cross–cultural interaction will work out for good or for ill?
  • Imagine that you are the director of a film version of The Orphanmaster. What scene would you most like to film, and how, specifically, would you film it?
  • The world that Zimmerman represents in The Orphanmaster is a dark and especially challenging place. What aspects of the novel, if any, preserve the possibilities of hope and regeneration? What virtues are most important to someone who wishes to cope and to thrive in such a world?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 23, 2013


    It's been a while since I read this novel; however, some of the content was so disturbing that the details still come to mind. The story was interesting though & very well researched.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 28, 2012

    Highly Recommended

    Great story line, great charactrs, very well written! Really enjoyed it!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 30, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    In the year 1663, on what is known today as Manhattan, someone i

    In the year 1663, on what is known today as Manhattan, someone is abducting and killing orphans. Blandine is a young orphan woman who has worked hard to carve out a living for herself as a trader. Richard Drummond, an English cavalier meets and becomes intrigued with Blandine. Together, they set out to solve the murder mystery.

    The Orphanmaster is a fascinating novel about the Dutch colony in early America. Well researched, the author has truly captured the essence of the times with all its hardships, morals, and daily living. I thoroughly enjoyed the heroine who is strong and stalwart and definitely independent. The giant man who befriends her and follows her around to protect her, was also a fine touch. And of course, I thoroughly enjoyed the hero, Richard Drummond. Although the novel moves slowly at times, and the novel could have had a few more scenes edited, the mystery about the sadistic killer kept me reading on to the end. A very good story that definitely sweeps readers back into 17th century America. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2013

    Could not get into this book---too muchgoingon dont waste ur time or money

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 10, 2013

    Got to page 200 and gave up because I really didn't care about t

    Got to page 200 and gave up because I really didn't care about the characters. The author paints a picture of an ugly place with small minded ugly people.

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  • Posted July 28, 2012

    Interesting, I'd recommend it

    This book offered a premise I had never considered. There were many causes of an abundance of parentless children. This book has some history that is probably not too well known.

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  • Posted July 19, 2012

    Good, but it was so horrific, I had to force myself to continue to read it!

    Interesting history of the founding of Manhnatten. Hard to believe anyone could be so cruel. Almost unbelievable. Main character was very compasionate and really tried to see the "good" in people although there was not too much good to see in those times. History buffrs might enhjoy but, unless you have a strong stomach, I would not5 recommend this book.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2012


    This wonderful historic masterpiece would make a blockbuster film.

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