Paradise Alley

Paradise Alley

by Kevin Baker

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They came by boat from a starving land—and by the Underground Railroad from Southern chains—seeking refuge in a crowded, filthy corner of hell at the bottom of a great metropolis. But in the terrible July of 1863, the poor and desperate of Paradise Alley would face a new catastrophe—as flames from the war that was tearing America in two reached out to set their city on fire.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060875954
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 01/03/2006
Series: City of Fire Trilogy Series , #2
Edition description: P.S. Insights, Interviews & More
Pages: 704
Sales rank: 447,834
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.13(d)

About the Author

Kevin Baker is the bestselling author of the novels Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Sometimes You See It Coming. He is a columnist for American Heritage magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Harper's, and other periodicals. He lives in New York City with his wife, the writer Ellen Abrams, and their cat, Stella.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


He is coming.

Ruth leaned out the door as far as she dared, peering down Paradise Alley to the west and the south. Past the other narrow brick and wood houses along Cherry Street, slouching against each other for support. The grey mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats growing higher every day since the street cleaners had gone out.

Fire bells were already ringing off in the Sixth Ward, somewhere near the Five Points. The air thick with dust and ash and dried horse droppings, the sulfurous emissions of the gasworks along the river, and the rendering plants and the hide-curing plants. It was not yet six in the morning but she could feel the thin linen of her dress sticking to the soft of her back.

"The good Lord, in all His mercy, must be readyin' us for Hell -- "

She searched the horizon for any sign of relief. Their weather came from the west, the slate-grey, fecund clouds riding in over the Hudson. That was how she expected him to come, too, fierce and implacable as a summer storm. His rage breaking over them all.

He is coming

But there was no storm just yet. The sky was still a dull, jaundiced color, the blue tattered and wearing away at the edges. She ventured a step out into the street, looking hard, all the way downtown, past the church steeples and the block-shaped warehouses, the dense thicket of masts around lower Manhattan.

There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual shapeless forms lying motionless in the doorways. A ragged child with a stick, a few dogs. A fruit peddler with his bright yellow barrow. Hiswares, scavenged from the barges over on the West Side, already pungent and overripe.

Nothing coming. But then, it wasn't likely he would come from the west anyway --

With a muted cry she swung around, then ducked back into her house, bolting the door behind her while she fought for breath. The idea that he could have been coming up behind her the whole time. She remembered how quickly he could move. She could feel his hands on her, could see the yellow dog's bile rising in his eyes. That mercilessanger, concentrated solely upon her --

She had not truly believed it before now -- not even after Deirdre had come over to tell her yesterday afternoon. Standing there on her doorstone, one foot still in the street as if she were hanging on to the shore. Wearing her modest black church dress, her beautiful face even sterner than usual. She was a regular communicant, Sundays and Fridays -- no doubt especially agitated to have to see Ruth on the Lord's day. She told her the news in a low voice, all but whispering to her. Deirdre herself, whispering, as if somehow he might overhear.

He is coming.

He had come -- all the way back from California. It was a fearsome, unimaginable distance. But then, what was that to a man who had gone as far as he had already? A friend of Tom's, a stevedore, had seen him on the docks -- as stunned as if he had seen Mose himself stepping off a clipper ship, back from his bar in the Sandwich Islands. Coming down the gangplank with that peculiar, scuttling, crablike walk of his, fierce and single-minded as ever. Moving fast, much faster than you thought at first, so that Tom's friend had quickly lost him in the crowd waiting by the foot of the gangplank. Already disappeared off into the vastness of the City --

Which meant -- what? The mercy of a few days? While he found himself a room in the sailors' houses along Water Street, began to work his way relentlessly through the bars and blind pigs, sniffing out any news. Sniffing out them.

Or maybe not even that. Maybe he had hit it right off, had found, in the first public house he tried, a garrulous drunk who would tell him for the price of a camphor-soaked whiskey where he might find a certain mixed-race couple, living down in one of the nigger nests along Paradise Alley --

No. Ruth calmed herself by sheer force of will. Picking up a broom, she made her hands distract her. Sweeping her way scrupulously around the hearth, under the wobbly-legged table even though she knew there was no need, they would never live here again after this morning.

When she made herself think about it logically, it wasn't likely he could be that lucky. He had never had much luck, after all -- not even with herself -- and his own face would work against him. He couldn't go out too bold. They would remember him still, after what had happened with Old Man Noe. Men would remember him, would remember that, and keep their distance. Maybe even turn him in, for the reward --

They still had time. A little, anyway. She and Billy had talked it out, deep into the night. Time enough for Billy to go up to his job at the Colored Orphans' Asylum in the Fifth Avenue today, and collect his back wages. Then they would have something to start on, at least, to see them through up to Boston, or Canada.

Why aren't we in Canada already? We should be there --

She swept faster, in her anger and her frustration, kicking up the fine, black grit that crept inexorably through the windows and over the transom, covering the whole City over, every day. They had talked about leaving, all these years, but somehow they had never actually gone. She had put it down to Billy's moodiness and his obstinacy, the lethargy that seemed to hold him sometimes, particularly when he'd been drinking.

Yet it was more than that, and she knew it. They both felt safer here -- on their block, miserable as it was, in the bosom of their friends and neighbors. They told themselves there would be risks if they ran, perhaps even worse risks. A white woman and a black man, with their five mixed-race children ...

Paradise Alley. Copyright © by Kevin Baker. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide


With Paradise Alley, the second novel in his City of Fire trilogy, Kevin Baker returns to the immigrant experience in historical New York. For three days in the summer of 1863, the Irish immigrant working class controls the streets of Manhattan, protesting President Lincoln's newly implemented draft act. As the angry mob burns its way through the city, Ruth Dove, Deirdre O'Kane and Maddy Doyle, neighbors on a street called Paradise Alley, come together in an unlikely alliance, struggling to protect themselves and their families during what would later be considered the worst riot in American history.

Just as he did in his previous novel, Dreamland, Kevin Baker uses the complexities of his characters to explore the essence of the immigrant experience in America. Capturing the hopes and dreams, failures and disappointments of the crowds of Irish Catholics as they step off the boat and into the teeming melting pot of New York, he looks for a historical understanding of what it means to become an American. Deirdre O'Kane's determination to make something of herself in New York has gained her the love of a husband, a small tidy house on Paradise Alley and an unbreakable aura of respectability. Fiercely proud and unfailingly pious, she seems to represent the best of both of her worlds, but comes to recognize the limitations of her success when she sends her husband off to a war from which he may never return. Maddy Boyle, a hot corn vendor-turned prostitute, is shunned by the neighborhood women for her reckless independence and the insult her profession presents to their propriety. Though her self-reliance seems impressive at first, behindclosed doors she betrays her longing for kinship and family. Ruth Dove has survived the potato famine and the passage across the ocean to become a rag picker in Northern Manhattan. In the shadow of an abusive relationship, she has fallen in love with an ex-slave and managed to trick her tormentor - Dangerous Johnny Dolan - into leaving for the West Coast. Now Johnny is back, and, marching in the front lines of the mob, he is searching for her. Ruth's survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds pays testament to the resilience and perseverance of those who made it, and her interracial relationship explores the complexities of the African-American experience in a time of racial hostility and suspicion.

In the kaleidoscope of his characters' stories, Baker captures the many dimensions of leaving everything behind and starting over. What they discover, ultimately, is a world without certainties, a constantly changing reality, where much of their lives will be spent struggling to retain a sense of who they are and where they have come from.

Historical Note

Of the roughly 37 million immigrants that arrived in America between 1840 and 1920, about 4.5 million came from Ireland, most of them arriving between 1840 and 1870. Escaping the potato famine, relentless poverty and the iron-fisted rule of the English, America was seen as a land of opportunity, where, with a bit of luck, street smarts and application, anything was possible. Most of the Irish Catholics seeking their fortunes in the New World came through Manhattan and many of them simply stayed: on the streets, in the overcrowded tenements, maybe even in a house of their own. As the urban centers began to expand in the middle of the 19th century, living and working conditions of the poorer immigrant working classes suffered. The economy was shaky, jobs were scarce and in the tenement district of lower Manhattan (where each square mile at that time packed more than 290,000 people), poverty and crime ruled the dark alleys and overcrowded apartments. It was here that Lincoln's draft act was most keenly felt. The new Irish-American working class had been willing to fight to preserve the Union, but their attitude toward the Civil War changed once Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation made it a war to free the slaves, and once the government began conscripting their fathers, brothers and husbands. Worse yet, only those able to pay the sum of $300-a full year's wages for an average workingman-would be able to buy a substitute. Within a few hours after the first names were called out at the draft box on July 13, 1863, the heated discussions on street corners, in pubs and at market stalls turned into the frenzy of a mob, as their fury at the injustice spilled onto the streets of Manhattan.

Questions for Discussion
  1. One of Paradise Alley's central themes is the Irish immigrants' struggle to adapt to a new and foreign environment while trying to preserve their cultural heritage in the process. Looking at the characters in Paradise Alley, what are some of the key problems they encounter and how does the assimilation process manifest itself in their daily lives?

  2. In his narrative, Baker has carefully interwoven fact and fiction, an effort that is echoed in the journalistic exploits of his character Herbert Willis Robinson, a reporter for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune. What does Baker's fine line between fact and fiction, and Robinson's depiction of his own reality, tell you about the complexities of recording and reconstructing historical reality? To what extent (if at all) should the novelist be bound by the actual historical record?

  3. The concept of family plays a significant role in the book and each character's actions are fueled, in part, by the presence, absence, safety or cruelty of their loved ones. Discuss the concept of family for each of the main characters and place it into the context of the Irish immigrant experience as a whole.

  4. Ruth Dove's personality is quiet and reticent, timid even, yet she has survived the most extreme adversity. What is the source of her strength? How did she make her way from the potato fields of Ireland to Paradise Alley?

  5. With Ruth's struggle in mind and the abuse she suffers at the hand of Johnny Dolan, we feel the emotional quality of her relationship and family to be especially redemptive. How would you interpret her death in that context?

  6. Tom and Deidre's relationship seems to be one of mutual respect and affection. Why does she encourage him to join the army voluntarily and what, for her, are the consequences of her actions?

  7. The cabinet of wonders that Johnny Dolan steals from the wandering peddler accompanies Ruth and Johnny throughout the novel:
    "Along the road, Johnny kept the box wrapped up tight…. At night … he would open it up, and stare at it until the light faded. There was everything inside, behind the glass. There were tiny mirrors and gemstones, glued to the back, so the whole size and shape of the thing seemed to shift, every time they looked inside. And they could always find something new. There were embryos of small animals, and insects floating in jars and feathers of strange birds, and the bones of the Saints. There were miniature charts of the seas and the constellations, and the compass of the navigator, and the tools of the apothecary, and of the barber and of the surgeon -- … he would look until the sun went down, and even longer, …wondering over it afterward. 'An' what d'ya think that is, back there? What d'ya think that does?' he would ask as they peered in together by the glow of the fire." (Pages 223-224)

    What is the significance of this box to Johnny and what about it makes it so valuable to him?

  8. As a Protestant and the only character from the educated higher classes, Herbert Willis Robinson seems to be the odd man out in a cast that is drawn mainly from the Irish immigrant working class. What is his role in the narrative?
About the Author: Kevin Baker was born in 1958 in Englewood, New Jersey, but grew up mainly in Rockport, Massachusetts. His career in writing began early; his first professional job was at age 13, as a stringer covering school sports for The Gloucester Daily Times. After graduating from Rockport High School and from Columbia University with a degree in political science, he worked at a number of freelance and writing jobs, including writing political position papers for the Public Securities Association and answering letters for the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York. Mr. Baker then signed on as the chief historical researcher for Harold Evans' celebrated history of the 20th century, The American Century (Knopf), which was a 1998 New York Times bestseller. In 1993, Mr. Baker published his first novel, based loosely on the legend of baseball great Ty Cobb entitled Sometimes You See it Coming. In 1999, Dreamland was published as the first volume in a series of historical novels set in New York, followed in 2002 by Paradise Alley.

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Paradise Alley 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read this book twice and plan to read it again in a couple of years. I'm captivated by the setting, the period, and the characters. This is just a great book that is thoughtfully written and carefully researched. Did you know that bankers in NYC would place bets on the outcome of Civil War battles?
Guest More than 1 year ago
Kevin Baker has done a remarkable job of bringing back to life a part of New York's and America's history in his marvelous 'Paradise Alley'. Unlike other books of historical fiction, Mr. Baker does not bog down the reader by impressing him/her with his research. The story and characters come first, and this is what separates Mr. Baker from other writers of historical fiction. Pick up this terrific book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Paradise Alley is one of the best new novels of the year. Set in the Civil War years, the author brings the characters to life.
Jamie638 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is an excellent historical novel which is set at the time of the infamous draft riots that took place ten days after the battle of Gettysburg in NYC. Several things I learned after reading this book were: the enormous level of racism and pro-Southern sentiment that existed in NYC at the time, the appalling living conditions of the poor, and how the city was almost destoyed by the violence.
PghDragonMan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Chronologically, this book predates Baker's previous book about early New York City, "Dreamland". This time the action takes place in Civil War era New York City and leads up to one of the greatest urban riots, the New Your Draft Riot. Baker highlights the early Irish immigrant population of the City, the influx of African Americans, some freed people and others escaped slaves and the interactions of these two groups.Baker once again shows us the ugly underside of this often romanticized City and probes the history of prejudice and race relations in America. Fascinating in its own right as a story, it also leave you wondering just how far we've come in accepting one another.
Gairid on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
'Paradise Alley' is a fascinating glimpse into American History and the evolution of New York City. Mr. Baker has a way with description that goes above and beyond most writers of historical novels; 'Paradise Alley' paints a picture of American life in New York City and the politics therein, the trenches of the battlefields of the Civil War, the origins of the FDNY and the desperate landscape of the terrible potato famine 1846-1848 in Ireland. The telling of the tale of the Draft Riots is daunting indeed; Kevin Baker brings that time vibrantly and hauntingly alive by showing us the events through the eyes of people that very well could have lived through it.
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Richard Jones More than 1 year ago
great prose detailing an important historical time. one of my top ten favs
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Guest More than 1 year ago
enjoyed the book. it took a little time to retain all the characters as each one is an individual chapter and the chapters alternate back and forth between these individuals and the events and circumstances associated with them. interesting as a Canadian to learn that in Lincoln's war an individual with $300.00 could buy his way out of military service by paying some poor individual to take his place...things really have not changed that much in the last 150 years. a good read...
Guest More than 1 year ago
I love historical fiction and who is better to write one than a historian. The narrative form in this novel is superb. A must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Dreamland, an extraordinary work, has found its match in Paradise Alley. Brutal, sometimes to an extreme, is captures a none- too-pretty picture of New York in its most violent age.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am captivated by this work. It is historically accurate in every detail. I heartily recommend this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating riveting book. Kevin Baker captures the feeling, look and even the smells of a different New York. I was interested in all the characters and their fates in the tumultuous time of the draft riots. He brought the period alive, and New York itself resonated as the main character.