Historian Jean Zimmerman has written several very well received histories among them Love Fiercely, A Guilded Age Romance and The Woman of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, A Fortune and a Dynasty. Her most recent book is also her first novel, The Orphanmaster.
Set in 1663 New Amsterdam, The Orphanmaster is the story of the murder of an 8 year old African-American slave, Piddy Gullee, the economics of orphans and the Charles the II sanctioned hunt for the murders of Charles the I. Sounds good right? Yes but there is one problem. Every bit of research Zimmerman has done for this novel is right there in your face.
Zimmerman doesn’t do herself any favors by not letting go of her historians need to educate mindset. At times (and by that I mean often) The Orphanmaster is an endless fact dropping storm settled over top of the plot. It is difficult to gain a reading momentum at the beginning of The Orphanmaster given the mini lessons that Zimmerman keeps interrupting her story with. It’s all really interesting but too much lecture and not enough action. There is a noticeable lessening of this here-is-all-my-research style but it never fully disappears into the novel.
On the plus side is Zimmerman’s main character, Blandine van Couvering and the setting. The potential in historical fiction for the heroine to be a way ahead of her time superwoman is always there. It’s a rare writer who can avoid that trap but Zimmerman does. In fact she does an excellent all way round with the characters. You are going to meet some interesting people in The Orphanmaster. Maybe this is the element of the novel where Zimmerman’s background in nonfiction gives her a leg up on other writers. Certainly that same theory can apply to how well she recreates a very gritty, realistic 1663.
Despite my complaints about the heavy-handed history lessons they are interesting. I did learn a lot Ms. Zimmerman. The Orphanmaster is stuffed with very satisfying melodrama, creepiness and memorable characters.
P.S. The cover? A+