This first work of fiction by historian Francis Spufford just has this aura of a great novel about it. It’s called Golden Hill and it’s set in New York City in 1746, back when New York was still a small colonial town. And nobody could have created this setting better than Mr. Spufford has.
I’m not somebody who reads a novel and gets excited about the setting. That being said, Mr. Spufford is utterly successful in creating 18th-century New York in the span of 300 or so pages. I was doing this thing I do, which is reading three books at the same time, and every time I got back into Golden Hill, there I was, immediately immersed in this city and century. I always remembered where I was. I never had to go back and look up a character I couldn’t remember. The extraordinary clarity of the plot and vividness of the characters meant that I could always dip back in and become as immediately engrossed as though I’d never even put the book down.
I do get excited about characters and dialogue, and Mr. Spufford creates unforgettable characters. Even the well-known trope, a stranger coming to town, becomes arresting in this story. Mr. Richard Smith arrives from England, with a note for an astonishing amount of money by colonial standards. He won’t say who he is, he won’t say what he’s doing there, and he certainly won’t say how he plans to affect the economic life of the colonies with this huge sum of cash. Then we move on to the people Mr. Smith meets. Tabitha, the daughter of a New York banking family, is piquant and original. You’ve never met anybody like her, I promise. Septimus, who somewhat reluctantly befriends Smith, has an intriguing dark side. And there are many more.
Additionally, there’s violence and bawdiness and unexpected adventure. And you have to finish the book for the plot twist at the end; it’s terrific.
If you love historical fiction, you’ve got to read Golden Hill. It deserves every reviewers’ accolade it gets.
Other historical fiction set in the early days of America includes:
Burr by Gore Vidal
The Providence Rider by Robert R. McCammon
The Constable’s Tale by Donald Smith