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Book Review

Recalling life in the city Abbott Lawrence built

Jay Atkinson, author of 'City in Amber. Jay Atkinson, author of "City in Amber. (j. juniper o'hare)
Email|Print| Text size + By Chuck Leddy
November 24, 2007

With his 2005 bestseller "Legends of Winter Hill," Jay Atkinson proved he could write a gripping, gritty real-life story about Boston-area cops and mobsters. In his new novel, a book whose ambitions are unmistakably epic, Atkinson attempts to explore the history of Lawrence. Any novel that seeks to cover 160 years of a city's history, describing the lives of its rich and poor, immigrants and Brahmins, is begging for literary disaster. What's surprising is how wonderfully well Atkinson pulls it all off.

In the 1990s, Lawrence was something of an urban basket case, with rampant gang violence, boarded-up buildings, underperforming schools, and a serious arson problem. Today conditions have deteriorated even further, and Lawrence in 2007 is far removed from the once-thriving mill city constructed in the 1840s by Abbott Lawrence. Atkinson's narrative flows back and forth from Lawrence present to Lawrence past. He shows us the Bible-quoting, paternalistic Abbott Lawrence working with his investors and management team. The Lawrences had gotten rich building textile mills and exploiting cheap immigrant labor, though Abbott Lawrence saw his mission as "civilizing" these immigrants.

While building Lawrence, then called New Town, workers lived in a shantytown called Dublin. Atkinson portrays Abbott Lawrence and his constables trying to collect rent in Dublin. The workers have not been paid, and they riot when the constables demand the rent. An innocent laborer is shot dead, one of many tragic deaths Atkinson describes. In another harrowing scene, a young Italian boy is sent to his death to keep the mill's machinery working. Again and again, Atkinson reveals that behind every great fortune is a great crime.

Atkinson's narrative resonates through generations and social strata. He shows us grandfathers, fathers, sons, immigrants, priests, cops, and politicians. Atkinson also displays a genius for symbolism, sprinkling his narrative with objects like old mill clocks, cuff links, old photos, an insect in amber, an old car. These items echo throughout the narrative, becoming talismans symbolizing how time and people connect.

Here's how Atkinson describes the Beaumont family, once the kings of Lawrence and now dying off: "What was once solid about them had become insubstantial, fading into the recesses of memory. It was the same with the entire city. Lawrence had prospered and then failed." The author's sweeping exploration of a single city has much in common with Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," yet Atkinson also digs deeply through decades, seeking to expose the very roots of Lawrence. None of this should work - "City in Amber" should crumble beneath the weight of Atkinson's ambition - but the novel feels as light and lucid as air.

There are many stories in the narrative, from the police investigation into a string of arson fires that have left two Hispanic children dead, to the dark tale of the Beaumonts, to the tale of a gang leader named Kuko Carrero who's the deadly new force on the city's streets. Atkinson's prose crackles with energy, and his pace never stalls, despite the interconnected stories spanning decades.

In one evocative scene from 1848, Abbott Lawrence's chief engineer, Charles Storrow, responds to his boss's dreams of a prosperous, respectable new city with a nightmarish vision of an apocalyptic future: "Our New City lies in ruin. A vast number of buildings are merely holes in the ground, scorched black. Some of the farther mills are standing, but windowless and empty."

Atkinson's goal is to describe how Lawrence's rich history has acted upon its inhabitants. Like the Merrimack River, which once powered the city's textile mills, "City in Amber" will rush you along in its powerful current.

City in Amber
By Jay Atkinson
Livingston, 449 pp., $28


Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer from Dorchester.

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