Newbery Medal winner Avi has had a steady, prolific career. He is a master at bringing the people, places and perils of 19th-century society to life through his impeccably researched works of historical fiction, including the Newbery Honor-winning The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. His latest, City of Orphans, is another such success, particularly due to his incomparable ability to absorb the sights, sounds and smells of a distant time and place: this time, New York City in 1893.
The novel opens with 13-year-old newsboy Maks Geless struggling to hawk The World amid the sordid streets of the Lower East Side. It’s all he can do to make eight cents a day—a pittance desperately needed by his family of poor Danish immigrants. But to do so, he must successfully avoid the Plug Ugly Gang, led by the notorious Bruno, which regularly shakes down the “newsies” to pay off a blackmailing businessman.
With luck and happenstance, Maks meets stick-wielding Willa, a tough, homeless abandoned girl who comes to his rescue. The two form a familial bond and take on their next challenge: getting Maks’ sister, Emma, out of jail for a theft she didn’t commit. But time is running out all over—for Emma; for Maks’ other sister, Agnes (suffering from tuberculosis); and for his father (who is facing unemployment).
Maks and Willa turn amateur detectives to take on the world that has wronged them both. In the process, they both discover the strength of family ties amid a threatening, yet realistic, backdrop of crime, poverty and life on the streets. Avi taps into the jargon of the era and paints tenement life so vividly, readers will actually smell the wet smoke and see the cobblestones glisten with rain and light. The poverty of Maks’ family is palpable, yet so, too, is the love. And Greg Ruth’s black and white sketches are perfectly nuanced snapshots of the main characters’ personalities.
As Avi mentions in his historical notes, Maks and Willa are not unlike other children of the day. Their plights are their own, but the duo serve as realistic representatives of another day, far grittier than our own.