Dreamland -- Ma Titwonky

Dreamland by Kevin Baker was published in 1999 and was named a New York Times Notable Book. It is part of a trilogy Baker has written about the city of New York and its history as viewed from 3 separate times. Dreamland concerns the early part of the 20th century when an amusement park named Dreamland existed on Coney Island.

Many of the characters in Dreamland are real people who lived, or more likely merely survived, one day at a time in tenements or right on the streets of New York. Women had few if any rights except to work in sweatshops and turn over their pay to the head of the household in which they lived. Many women lived by their wits and what their bodies could provide for them. It would be hard to decide which type of life was worse -- being a worker who often worked 15 hours a day for practically no pay, or the prostitutes whose lives were often cut short by disease or beatings by men on the streets. Neither life was worth much, yet still people persevered to have whatever kind of future they might make for themselves.

It was into this environment Baker introduced characters like Esther, a sewing machine operator from the Lower East side of New York. She wished for a better life but never really expected to have it. Or Big Tim Sullivan who was 2nd man on the totem pole at Tammany Hall, and who made his money wherever opportunity presented itself. Or Gyp the Blood and Kid Twist, both gangsters whose lives cross because one's sister is the other's girlfriend. Or Trick the Dwarf who is a carnival performer, and who is the one connecting all these people with his stories.

Ever since I saw the movie Gangs Of New York, I have been interested in the history of old New York. Dreamland was an excellent addition to what I've seen or read so far thanks to Kevin Baker's gift for story telling and making that time in that city very real and very turbulent. I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction with a first rate plot and fascinating characters.