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“A powerful, deeply moving epic, an eartheir, rowdier, more inclusive Ragtime . . . [a] populist masterpiece.” - Publishers Weekly

This is Dreamland, a uniquely fierce and magical tale that delivers both a sweeping chronicle of America at the turn of the century and an intimate, heart-wrenching portrait of the lives of its denizens. Among the thousands of immigrants who arrive in New York harbor is an Eastern European stowaway called Kid Twist, who soon earns his keep as an enforcer for the ruthless gangster Gyp the Blood. Soon though, Kid brutally splits with Gyp, leaving him bleeding from a shovel wound to the head in a rancid basement on the Lower East Side. His life now in jeopardy, Kid flees to Brooklyn, finding asylum with a Coney Island carny known as Trick the Dwarf.

While hiding out, Kid meets young Esther Abramowitz, a shirtwaist seamstress who labors under inhumane conditions. As their love affair blossoms, Esther emerges from quiet shop worker to foot soldier in the burgeoning labor movement. Changed by love, Kid, too, is no longer the ruthless scavenger he once was, as he prepares for an electrifying showdown with the vengeful Gyp the Blood.

Kevin Baker's deftly imagined blend of meticulous historical research and assured narrative invention recreates a world bursting at the seams, a world of freak shows, cataclysmic exhibitions, mad dwarves, and bathing beauties. In prose that is at once ferocious and breathtakingly lyrical, Dreamland weaves a richly layered tapestry that captures perfectly the emotional and psychological essence of the American experience at the dawn of a new age.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780694521081
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/01/1999
Series: City of Fire Trilogy Series , #1
Edition description: 4 Cassettes
Product dimensions: 4.11(w) x 7.08(h) x 1.17(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.

Kevin Baker is the author of one previous novel, Sometimes You See It Coming, and served as chief historical researcher for the recently published The American Century by Harold Evans. He is married and lives in New York City.

John Rubenstein won a Theater World Award, a Tony, and a Drama Desk Award for his performances in Pippin and Children of a Lesser God.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I know a story.

"I know a story," said Trick the Dwarf, and the rest of them leaned in close: Nanook the Esquimau, and Ota Benga the Pygmy, and Yolanda the Wild Queen of the Amazon.

"What kind of story?"

Yolanda's eyes bulged suspiciously, and it occurred to him again how she alone might actually be as advertised: tiny, leather-skinned woman with a mock feather headdress, betel nut juice dribbling out through the stumps of her teeth. A mulatto from Caracas, or a Negro Seminole woman from deep in the Okefenokee, at least.

"What kind of a story?"

He swiped at the last swathes of greasepaint around his neck and ears, and looked down the pier of the ruined park to the west before replying. All gone now, even the brilliant white tower festooned with eagles, its beacon reaching twenty miles out to sea. Gone, gone.

It was evening, and the lights were just going up along Surf Avenue: a million electric bulbs spinning a soft, yellow gauze over the beach and parks. The night crowd was already arriving, pouring off the New York & Sea Beach line in white trousers and dresses, white jackets and skirts and straw hats--all quickly absorbed by the glowing lights.

The City of Fire was coming to life.

He could hear the muffled fart of a tuba from the German oompah band warming up in Feltman's beer garden. Beyond the garden was the Ziz coaster, hissing and undulating through the trees lay the peculiar sound that gave it its name. Beyond that was the high glass trellises of Steeplechase Park, with its ubiquitous idiot's face and slogan, repeated over and over--steeplechase--funny place--steeplechase--funny place--beyond that the ocean, where asingle, low-slung freighter was making for Seagate ahead of the night.

He could see even further. He could see into the past--where Piet Cronje's little Boer cottage had stood, or the Rough Riders coaster, before some fool sailed it right off the rails, sixty feet into the air over Surf Avenue. Where a whole city had stood, back beyond the ruined pier--

Meet me tonight in Dreamland

Under the silvery moon

Soon, he knew, the soft yellow lights would be honed by the darkness into something sharper. They would become hard and clear: fierce little pearls of fire, obliterating everything else with their brightness.

None of them now on the pier would see it, not Yolanda or Ota Benga or Nanook the Esquimau. They would be working by then, in their booths and sideshows. They would not see the lights again until they were on their way home, in the early morning; would see them only as they shutdown, already faded to a fraudulent, rosy hue by the sun rising over the ocean.

Meet me tonight in Dreamland

Where love's sweet roses bloom

Come with the lovelight gleaming

In your dear eyes of blue

Meet me in Dreamland

Sweet dreamy Dreamland

There let my dreams come true

They liked to sit out on the ruined pier during the dinner hour, between the heavy action of the day and the night shows. They slumped on the rotted pilings, where once a hundred excursion boats a day had tied up, to smoke and eat, and spit and smoke and tell their stories: Ota Benga, spindly and humpbacked, no real pygmy but a tubercular piano player from Kansas City, exotic moniker lifted from an old carny sensation of the past--

In the City everything was passed down, even the names of the freaks and the gangsters--

--Nanook the Massive, Nanook the Implacable, slit-eyed hero of the north--who was in fact a woman from some extinguished Plains tribe, signed on after her old man had tried to force her into whoring at the Tin Elephant hotel along Brighton Beach.

And then there was Yolanda. Immense frog eyes still staring up at him, curved beak of a nose, skin the color and texture of a well-used saddle--

"It's a love story," Trick told her. "It's a story about love, and jealousy, and betrayal. A story about a young man, the young woman who loved him, and a terrible villain--a story about death, and destruction, and fire. It is a story about thieves and cutthroats, and one man's vision, and the poor man's burden, and the rich man's condescension.

"It is a story about Kid Twist, the gangster, and Gyp the Blood, who was a killer, and Big Tim the politician, and poor Beansy Rosenthal, who couldn't keep his mouth shut. It is a story about Sadie the whore, and the brave Esther, and the mad Carlotta, and the last summer they all came together in the great park.

"It is a story about the Great Head Doctors from Vienna, and the rampages of beasts, and the wonders of the Modern Age. It is a story about a great city, and a little city, and a land of dreams. And always, above all, it is a story about fire."

"Ah," said Yolanda, satisfied now, leaning back and lighting up her pipe. "Ah. The usual."

Table of Contents

What People are Saying About This

Iain Pears

Dreamland is a fascinating and compelling novel. The real star, perhaps, is the city itself, which Mr. Baker depicts in all its garish, squalid, exuberant, frightening magnificence through his intricate patchwork of bizarre and finely drawn characters.

Geoffrey C. Ward

Dreamland is an astonishment -- an irresistable epic made up of equal parts persuasive history and richly satisfying fantasy. With this remarkable novel, Kevin Baker establishes himself as a master of the form.

Reading Group Guide

Dreamland is a historical novel that recreates turn-of-the century New York, bringing to life an entire era and capturing the essence of the American immigrant experience. Each character in Kevin Baker's diverse cast represents a different walk of life from New York, circa 1910.

Dreamland's heroine, Esther "Esse" Abramowitz, is a perfect example of the strength and resilience of the immigrant spirit. A hard-working laborer in a Lower East Side sweatshop, Esse never ceases in her various struggles for independence, equality, and fair treatment against exploitative employers and society's traditional views of the role of women. Esse's coming-of-age coincides with her love affair with Kid Twist, a stowaway from the Old World. The action of Dreamland begins with Kid Twist's violent falling-out with the feared gangster leader Gyp the Blood, setting in motion a long series of events that lead ultimately to a startling and unexpected finale on Coney Island.

The stories of Esse and Kid Twist are intertwined with tales of a multitude of characters, most drawn straight from the pages of history, such as Tammany Hall political boss Big Tim Sullivan; Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis; Karl Jung, his protégé; Beansy Rosenthal, whose testimony in a police corruption case threatens to undermine Tammany Hall, and whose murder plays a catalytic role in the events of this novel; and numerous others, real and imagined, from Coney Island at a time when it was one of the most miraculous spectacles of the modern world.

Dreamland is a story about survival, about human beings living day-to-day, persevering against the odds.Turn-ofthe-century New York was truly a remarkable place and time; while it held for most immigrants more promise than the lands from which they'd come, it introduced hardship and cataclysmic disappointment on a scale virtually unimaginable from today's perspective. From Esse, who was destined to work in a sweatshop and live in a filthy, crowded tenement, to Trick the Dwarf, eking out a living as a sideshow freak, basic survival consumed the bulk of people's time and spirit. For the poor, especially destitute immigrants, life was often a bitter struggle for the American Dream, an elusive and uncertain end in itself. Of course, honest work wasn't the only way -- or even the best way -- to make it in New York; indeed, there seemed greater opportunity through gangsterism, crime, and corruption. Esse and Gyp the Blood escape their common oppressive circumstance through opposite roots. Survival dictates that Kid Twist become a gangster, despite a moral aversion to the work expected of him. Whether these characters sewed or killed, sweat or cheated, earning enough to live another week was often all that mattered.

And on the weekend? For Esse, as for thousands of immigrants, the Sunday off provided the opportunity to mix with all walks of life in Coney Island -- the magical city where bright lights cast a soft glow on hard lives and the surf of the Atlantic washed away fears and troubles. All kinds of people came together in Coney Island in a strange and dynamic synergy. Whores mixed with factory workers and gangsters with freaks; midgets lived out their dreams of normalcy and onlookers reveled in the spectacle. When it came time for dreaming, the playing field leveled, and the rich and the poor alike went to Coney's parks -- Steeplechase, Luna Park, and of course, Dreamland. There they could release their tensions and worries and fears, and find excitement in a stolen caress, comfort in the misfortune of others, beauty in a ride that left the surf below and soared in to the sky above... truly a land of dreams that provided a haven from the rough-and-tumble of life in a sometimes unforgiving New York City.

Historical Notes: The era in which Dreamland takes place was one of immense social change and upheaval. In many ways, the social landscape changed dramatically to accommodate the rapidly shifting composition of New York's population. From the late 1800's until 1920, foreign immigrants grew to comprise close to half of New York City's already sizable population. It is an understatement, then, to say that immigration played a huge role in turn-of-the-century New York. Kevin Baker's Dreamland is the very portrait of this New York. Besides capturing the essence of this era of rampant change and diversification, Mr. Baker also adhered to a general framework of historical reality. In his own words, he explains, "My own feeling is that you can't beat reality; the best you can do is try to rearrange it." Thus, much of Dreamland is fact-based, particularly as Trick the Dwarf reminds us in his opening soliloquy how Dreamland is "a story about fire," and the infernos described within the novel were very real. The Triangle Fire was a tragedy that had enormous impact on city life in New York and elsewhere in the years that followed. On March 25, 1911, 146 people, most of whom were young garment workers, perished in the fire that consumed one of the city's biggest sweatshops. In the Asch Building, home to the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and east of today's Washington Square Park, firefighters fought helplessly against the raging conflagration. Ultimately, many women were forced to jump out of windows stories above the street, unsure of whether anything would catch them other than the concrete sidewalks below.

The other fire central to the book is, of course, the burning of Dreamland itself, which occurred on May 26 of the same year. Workers were putting the finishing touches on fixing a leak that had sprung a few days before in the cavern walls of Hellgate, Coney's version of a boat ride on the River Styx. Suddenly, overhead light bulbs began to pop and explode, which, coupled with a spilled bucket of tar, set the park ablaze in moments. By 4 a.m. the next morning, the phantasmagorical Dreamland had burned to the ground, at a total uninsured loss of more than $5.2 million and 2,500 jobs.

Questions for Discussion
  • A key issue for immigrants has been the struggle to assimilate into their new homeland without sacrificing hallmarks of many different distinct cultures with them. What legacies have the various characters in Dreamland brought with them from their respective Old Worlds? Take Esse's family in particular and highlight how the old and the new clash, and how each member deals with the assimilation process differently.

  • Author Kevin Baker challenges the reader to sniff out various hidden historical figures in Dreamland. How many can you name?

  • Along those same lines, how difficult is it to distinguish between history and Mr. Baker's craft in the novel? Can you separate the fiction from the reality? How fine do you think that line is in your own perception of and involvement in the making of history right now?

  • Violence and beauty are often very closely associated in Dreamland. Why might they share close ties? Cite specific examples from the book.

  • Love is often tested in Dreamland. Whether faced with family disapproval, the threat of physical dangers, divisive politics, or simply the dynamics of a rapidly changing world, many of the book's characters meet the challenge put forth by love in its many different forms. For example, Kid Twist's loyalty to Esse never waned, not even in the face of death; Trick's love for Carlotta was uncompromised by her madness; even power-hungry Big Tim Sullivan's heart opened children everywhere. In light of this, how much do you think that characters' motivations were shaped by love in Dreamland? 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 Glouchester 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's 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, loosely based on the legend of baseball great Ty Cobb entitled Sometimes You See It Coming. Dreamland represents what Mr. Baker envisions to be the first volume in a trilogy of historical novels set in New York.

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    Dreamland 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
    Guest More than 1 year ago
    While many professional reviewers site the book close to Doctrow I saw a combination of Doctrow for the subject format, and a tip to John Jakes, particularly his 'California Gold.' I enjoyed Baker's jab's at Riis's 'Romantic' photo's and the scene of the The 'New' Police Headquarters is timeless. New Yorkers should read this book before the city 're-opens' its renovated Tammy Hall Courthouse.
    Feltrer More than 1 year ago
    The narrative style of Kevin Baker and the interest of the story make Dreamland a novel that you enjoy from the start. The characters are surprising and endearing at once. Read from Barcelona, Spain, as in my case, reveals many similarities between the lifestyle of the poor immigrants in New York and Barcelona at the beginning of last century. The chapter in which Esther begins her first job, for example, could have gone to Barcelona in the same way, and Lower East Side district would be the "Poble Nou" here. Dreamland only lacks two things: to be translated into Spanish and be made into a film. The novel has qualities for in both cases, become a success, no doubt!
    deargreenplace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    I finished reading this book just as the tv programme Boardwalk Empire aired in the UK. The book tells the tales of a colourful variety of characters in the post-depression era, all connected by Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. There is a politician, a gangster, a female immigrant and Trick the Dwarf, a performer at the amusements.For me the book belonged to Esse, daughter of Eastern European immigrants and an underpaid seamstress in The Triangle - a hazardous factory. She takes trips to Coney Island every Sunday to escape her homelife, and one week meets a handsome stranger. She doesn't yet know about his connections, nor he hers.The historical research that's gone into the book is very evident, and that alone would make me recommend it to others. Strange to be reminded of a time when food and material possessions were hard fought for. I haven't yet watched Boardwalk Empire, but I hope it's every bit as good as Dreamland.
    PghDragonMan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Set in New York City of the early Twentieth Century, Baker's novel draws on the actual immigrant history of the time and strips off the romantic veneer to show us the ugly truth of the times. People were routinely exploited, politics was corrupt, the police were corrupt and the American Dollar was king. Set in the middle of all this, Baker gives us some incredibly complex characters, some modeled after real life people of the times, and follows them through their daily lives.Not a kind picture of our American roots, but still an important glimpse in to the past nonetheless. Suggested for those with a taste for off beat (but real life) characters, a taste for historical fiction or an interest in one of the great industrial tragedies of the early Twentieth Century.
    SeriousGrace on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    It makes sense that a historian like Kevin Baker would write something as epic and sweeping as Dreamland. It is a beautifully blended tale of fiction and reality. Events like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and people like Sigmund Freud and politics like Tammany Hall exist in harmony with fictional Coney Island gangsters and seedy carnival performers. It's a world of underground rat fights, prostitution, gambling, and the sheer violent will to survive. It's dirty and tragic. A love story hidden behind the grime, the colorful lights, the tricks, and the chaotic noise of New York.
    fauxbro on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
    Beautifully written historical novel that reall gives a sense of New York in the early 20th. Unfortunately the climax is a bit of a let down. Still, well worth reading.
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    Guest More than 1 year ago
    The book never really comes together. It is a disturbing book, but that would not have mattered if the transitions could have been smoother.
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Anonymous More than 1 year ago
    Sighns the papers silently and leaves