The Great Mistake – Jonathan Lee

Andrew Haswell Green (1820-1903) is the protagonist of this fascinating historical fiction novel. He was christened the father of New York City for a considerable array of accomplishments including early work to encourage and support the creation of the amazing space that became Central Park and later heading the Central Park Commission with many problem solving cost-cutting activities while fostering the creation of the Metropolitan and Natural History Museums. He is credited with successfully bringing about the five borough/single city structure of New York, the project that led to the name of this book as many people considered it a great mistake. He was involved in the creation of New York’s first state park, Niagra Falls, to protect the area. As executor of former Governor/dear friend Samuel Tilden’s estate, Haswell used funds from the estate and creatively merged existing private libraries to establish the world renowned New York Public Library. Who knew?! Of all the familiar names associated with NYC and its landmarks, I have never heard of Andrew Haswell Green. Lee imagines through a well-researched and reasonably imagined story the personal and historical context that led to Green’s successes. Green was murdered at age 83 by a man who accused him of interfering with the shooter’s relationship with a woman. I want to avoid spoilers, because this is a story that, much like a murder mystery, has twists, psychological drama, characters aplenty and regular shifts between the present (1903) and various, not chronological periods during Green’s formative years. Lee introduces us to well-developed characters, imagining their thoughts and feelings, each a real person found in the historic records: the police Inspector who has significant ambition but sticks to an honest, persistent approach to investigating the murder; an unusual madame and her celebrity cliental; Samuel Tilden, attorney and later New York governor, who befriends young Andrew when he was a simple store clerk and ultimately inspires him to become a lawyer; his father who seems to find young Andrew too feminine in his approach to work on the farm, no matter how fast and effectively he works; Andrew’s boss on a sugar plantation in Trinidad; his housekeeper who witnessed the murder and knows Andrew as well as anyone can. While I personally like the leaps among years that help explain the very complex Andrew and develop the story beautifully, I imagine some will find it confusing. If you want your historical fiction accurate and engaging and to teach you something you did not know; if you love wonderful character development and thoughtful writing; if you like a good story and want to be entertained; read “The Great Mistake.”

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