This post could be subtitled “Why I Tend to Prefer Historical Fiction to Non-fiction.” The Archaeology of Home by Katharine Greider is the history of an apartment house at 239 E. 7th Street in NYC. It is both the history of the place, starting as a salt marsh known by the native Indian tribes, and also the brief stories of the people who settled the land and lived in the building. The author researches all this after her family had to give up the apartment when it was condemned by the city for being structurally unsound.
I think this book might resonate with people who are from or are familiar with New York, but it didn’t deliver for me. I’m sure the author did meticulous research, to the point that the copious footnote numbers were getting annoying, but there just wasn’t enough information to allow me to get any real feel for the place. Perhaps if I already had some working knowledge, say from a 4th grade “know your state/city” social studies curriculum, then this book would have provided interesting specific details. However, all it provided me were trivia tidbits that will be stored in an irretrievable filing cabinet in my brain. Historical fiction could have taken these real people and fleshed out their lives with (hopefully) correct historical detail and given me a real sense of this piece of Manhattan.
On top of it all, the author was working to understand her own emotions about being cast out of the place that she had envisioned being the first home that she and her husband would truly call their own and where they would raise their young family. So she tried to tie in the physical and emotional meanings of home throughout civilization. That was a bit much to tackle as a sidenote to her main story.
This book avoided some of the usual complaints about non-fiction, it didn’t read like a textbook and it didn’t feel like a magazine article that got out of hand. There just wasn’t enough focus for me to get anything out of it. It did pique my interest though. Any recommendations for good historical fiction about the early settlement of Manhattan would be appreciated.