The rise of Chicago in the 19th century provides the frame for a trove of colorful stories and characters in this entertaining debut novel.
The first chapter begins with a wink, a label describing it as an “Extract from Chicago: An Alternative History 1800-1900." That conceit also prepares for the book’s variety of textual “sources,” including a journal, letters, a chapbook, newspaper clips, an interview, and, in a meta wink, a book review of the alternative history. They give a period feel, add colorful voices via dialect and accents, and allow Carr some narrative maneuvers. The story traces the building of the city from muddy streets to bubble-frame houses, sewage systems, and skyscrapers while following several characters across generations. One is the city’s first settler, whose father was a white Frenchman and mother, "a free-born slave"; his great-granddaughter will become a journalist and take on powerful politicians, putting her life at risk in a chilling scene. Another is a dreamer and booster of Chicago who begins with land speculation, goes bankrupt twice, and plays a crucial role in making the city a railroad hub. He is also foiled in a romance that will echo across years. Elsewhere a teen nearly killed while trying to break up a logjam delaying timber shipments to the growing city will become a building inspector and target of the same corrupt politicians the journalist pursues. A few historical figures have cameos, although Ellis Chesbrough, the engineer who designed Chicago's sewer system, gets a sizable role linked to the fictional players. Melodrama mars a few scenes, and the frequent shifts in voice and style may test some readers’ patience. For the most part, Carr has a sure touch, and in many extended anecdotes, his narrative skills show exceptional detail, pacing, and tension.
A solid storyteller enlivens a rich patch of American history.