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This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Beverly Swerling. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. Introduction
As a deeply divided America struggles to compromise its way out of the terrible question of slave or free and to avoid civil war, waves of immigrants provide vital labor for New York City’s thriving commercial life while unsettling its ruling class. Suddenly Catholics and Jews are no longer tiny minorities, and establishment Protestants must confront fiery Evangelicals who scorn their lack of commitment to biblical truths and bring revival meetings to Broadway. In Beverly Swerling’s City of God
the raging currents caused by such upheaval make it possible for a man of prominence—Samuel Devrey—to be married to both an uptown American wife and a downtown Chinese tai-tai,
yet manage to keep his two worlds secret from one another. That is, at least until both women prove themselves unwilling to be mere chattel, and a distant cousin—Dr. Nicholas Turner—arrives to head Bellevue hospital and unveils the corruption and betrayal that exist in private and public spheres. Discussion Questions
1. In the introductory “How it Happened” section, Swerling offers a brief historical overview of the European origins of Evangelicalism, its confrontation with the anti-religious “rationalist” arguments supported by the Enlightenment, and the way in which the Evangelical movement took root in post-Revolutionary America. Did you find this overview helpful to understanding and enjoying the novel or merely a distraction? What do you think of the notion that religion is essentially a matter of personal interpretation? Do you find any merit in the idea of religious leaders, such as bishops and even a pope, acting as upholders and interpreters of doctrine?
2. The story highlights the stirrings of American feminism in the 1800s. Were you surprised to find it so prominent so early? Do you think those first Catholic nuns in New York would have been seen as representing women who believed themselves entitled to more independence? If so, how does that square with their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience? Compare the story’s heroines—Carolina, Mei-Hua, Manon, and Bella—and discuss the different ways in which each can be seen as a woman of strength. To which heroic character did you most relate and why? What of the female villains in the story—Lilac, Jenny, and Addie—did you understand them and their choices? Did any one of the characters who represent women raised in earlier traditions—Ah Chee, Lucy, and Celinda—engage your sympathies? Why?
3. The first time we meet Dr. Nicholas Turner, he is in a hospital tent in Gettysburg right after the battle, and we learn that he treats wounded Confederate and Union soldiers with no regard to their allegiances. Did you find his altruism appealing or annoying? Given Swerling’s reputation for historical accuracy, were you surprised to learn of the role of Walt Whitman? What does a novel like this gain from putting Whitman in those first few pages, though he has no other part in the story? Swerling says such devices are part of the bridge she uses to lead the reader comfortably back to the past. Do you find it helpful to have real characters play cameo roles in historical fiction? Nick Turner, on the other hand, is entirely fictional and a major character in the book. Did meeting him in this role in the prologue enrich the story for you? Did what you know about him from the prologue inform your understanding of how he deals with Dr. Grant, Samuel, Carolina, and Mei-hua? Would you rather have had the book open at chapter one and skip the prologue?
4. Why do you think Samuel insisted on watching Mei-hua’s feet being bound? If it was an exercise in power, was the Chinese river pirate Di Short Neck correct in his belief that Samuel would not want to witness the child’s arch being broken with a heavy stone? What is the connection between power and love in Samuel’s life? Between power and pain? Does the fact that his father was always known as Bastard Devrey play a part in the man Samuel became, or was it simply that he was forced to spend so many formative years in China? What about Samuel’s development in the story? Did he turn out the way you expected him to? Were you satisfied by how his life ended, or saddened by it?
5. What do you think prompted Nick to move from Providence to New York? Were you surprised to learn that then as now New York City was a magnet for people of ambition? In Nick’s case, why was his desire to do medical research more likely to be fulfilled in New York than anywhere else in the country?
6. As we become familiar with different generations throughout the book—especially over the span of Swerling’s entire series—we get a sense of social evolution and progress. Are there characteristics shared across each generation? And what part do you think they play in telling the story of the physical development of the city?
7. Nick moves into town and with the eyes of a newcomer can quickly spot flaws even in the longstanding traditions. At one point, irritated by all the depravity he sees, he questions himself and his cousin: “Are we complicit, Cousin Manon? Does having anything to do with [Bellevue] make us part of what happens here?” How would you answer him? Do you think resigning in protest would have been the more honorable course?
8. Although seen for only a couple of pages, the stigmatic Eileen O’Connor plays a pivotal role in the story. Are you aware of both historical and contemporary claims of the existence of the stigmata? Do you believe that Manon saw Christ’s wounds in the girl’s flesh? If she did not, what could have made her believe she did? Why do you think Swerling chooses such a level-headed, sensible character to have this experience? Does it matter if Manon actually saw the blood or only thought she saw it? Do you think it was this vision that caused her to become a Catholic? And having undergone that conversion, why did she choose to become a nun?
9. There was only one synagogue in New York City for some two hundred years; during two decades in the story that number grows to a hundred. Would such a rapid expansion of their presence in New York help the Jews to be accepted, or would it encourage prejudice? Was the early development of Reform Judaism likely to make the Jews more acceptable to their Christian neighbors? Samson Simpson is a real historical character whose public persona (lawyer, elder of Shearith Israel, philanthropist) is accurately portrayed. What do you think of Swerling’s placing him in her story and having him interact with her characters? Does this make the story more real for you, or is it a distraction?
10. Throughout this story we are made aware that women were expected to be faithful wives, but to accept that their husbands would occasionally stray. Why do you think Carolina reacted so strongly when she discovered Mei-hua’s existence and her role in Samuel’s life? And given her feelings, why didn’t she divorce him? Would she have been able to survive without the support of her father? How do you feel about Samuel’s double life before the fire? Did you change your opinion of him after it? What about the love affair between Nick and Carolina? Do you think Carolina’s newfound financial independence was part of her finally giving in to Nick? Why would that make a difference to her? To him?
11. Do you consider Jenny a murderer, even though she did not technically poison Wilbur? What is your feeling about the activities of the story’s abortionists: the fictional Lilac Langton and the real Madam Restell? Were you surprised by the story of the development of the abortion laws? What does that history say about our present-day conflicts regarding the subject? Do you consider it important that there was at the time no foundling home in all of the city, and no provision for medical care for the poor? Why do you imagine the “moral reformers” who railed against abortion and sponsored the laws did not address the issue of making provision for the pregnant women or the children they bore? What do you think motivated their opposition to the abortionists?
12. Is Sam Devrey a good father? Compare his role in Mei Lin’s life to the one he plays in the lives of Zack and Ceci. What do you think accounts for the difference?
13. In the scene where Carolina and Nick become lovers, “she took his hand and led him to her small and cluttered office, the place in the house where she was most herself.” Why do you think Carolina feels most comfortable in her office? What does this say about her, and does it set her apart from other female characters in the book?
14. Does this book influence your understanding of modern-day New York? The novel touches upon cultural and urban changes—from architecture and urban planning to the social and ethnic background of different areas—and establishes them as part of the living and breathing history of the city. Did this book change the way you look at New York, or any cosmopolitan city, that you know today?
15. Why do you think Nick had such a violent reaction when he learned of Carolina’s involvement with the underground railroad? How does that square with the way he seems to have always understood Carolina’s delight in business?
16. Discuss the choices of the next generation of women in the story. Can you think of any way Mei Lin could have avoided marrying Kurt? What direction would the story have to have taken if she had, for example, run away with Fritz before her marriage to Kurt? What do you think has happened to Ceci as the wife of the owner of a thriving Virginia plantation before and during the Civil War? Is it likely she adjusted? Do you want to know more of her story? Enhance your Book Club
1. Photocopy a street map of modern-day Manhattan and superimpose on it the locations described in the book: the red brick houses on Fourteenth Street, the cobbled paths of Fifth Avenue, and the crammed houses on Cherry Street. What has changed since then? Bonus points: If you have access to New York City, organize a walking tour of the different areas and compare the buildings you imagine stood then against those you see before your eyes today.
2. Research the history of Bellevue hospital and its inner workings. (There’s lots about that in the first book in this series, City of Dreams.)
Pretend that it’s the 1830s and that you are appointed Director, replacing Dr. Tobias Grant. What immediate changes would you call for to improve conditions in the hospital? Take both sides of the debate about germs: given what you know as a person living in the mid 1800s are they a result of the illness or its cause? What would you do about the treatment of the mentally ill?
3. Get hold of a copy of the Olivia de Havilland film Snakepit
(1948) and watch it together, remembering that the movie about a woman confined to a state mental hospital was hailed as groundbreaking when it came out—the woman’s only real evidence of mental illness was that she wanted to think for herself—and that it was well known at the time that Bellevue was the model for the hospital. Why do you imagine de Hailland didn’t win the Oscar for her critically acclaimed performance?
4. Find a local medical history museum (such as the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, DC: http://nmhm.washingtondc.museum/ ) and organize a trip. Discuss the developments talked about in the book, such as stethoscopes, ether, amputation flaps, knowledge of germs, and so forth. Do you see any of these in the museum? What other modern-day tools and methods can you name that are directly or indirectly linked to the ones discussed in the book?
5. Find out more details on the New York fire of 1835—a fire that caused the modern-day equivalent of $200 million in damage—and look through photographs and maps. Compare the descriptions of what parts of the city suffered the most damage (pages 208-212) against your map from exercise #1. What challenges kept the fire department from putting out the fire? A Conversation with the Author - Beverly Swerling
In the introductory Author’s Note, you preface the tale of City of God
with a disclaimer: “The development of the theory and technology that in the 1840s led to the building of those breathtaking birds of paradise, the mighty clipper ships, is told as accurately as my research allowed.” Though the novel is a fictional account of that era, there is obvious effort to stay true to history. Was it hard to reconcile the overarching dramatic stories with such a fast-changing history of the time?
In the example you cite, it was not. I simply compressed what happened over five years into two.
Medicine (frequently described in very vivid detail) plays a strong role in the book, often propelling the story forward—so much so that it almost becomes a character itself. Did you cultivate an interest in the technological developments of medicine as you researched for this book, or were you always interested in it? Is medicine central to this time period because advancements in science introduced men to the idea of putting off death and owning their own lives?
The series began in my mind with Bellevue hospital, and as I researched that I began to see how closely related the story of Bellevue is to the story of New York. And because I originally had a barber/surgeon as a founding character, it has been natural to keep the medical and business themes alive. Moreover, it is absolutely fascinating to follow the developments of modern medicine through this period when they exploded in a way that they had not for many hundreds of previous years, and hurled us into this time when we are able to achieve cures that would have seemed literally miraculous to the characters in these stories. In fact, the post-Civil War period is positively astounding in medicine. It will be fun to write about the role of the Turners in those developments.
An important characteristic that sets Nick apart from other characters is that he is at first an outsider and, as such, more cognizant of the fraud happening in the hospital and the dishonesty of people in the city. Why did you make your protagonist an immigrant from Providence? Did you purposefully want to create a new eye with which to gaze at the New York society?
I’m afraid I can’t claim any such prescience. It was the branch of the family I was picking up that determined his coming from Providence. In City of Glory we learn that Andrew’s son lives there. So his grandson had to get from there to New York in a time when people didn’t move as readily as they do today. The internal logic of the stories is very important to me and I believe to my readers. I bend it sometimes when I have to, but then I always hear about it! (Readers can write to me at www.beverlyswerling.com.)
In the book, we can see that even within religious groups, there is a hierarchy. Religion is such a strong force that it becomes a politics of sorts. To this day, discussing religion can oftentimes lead to debate. Are you a religious person? Do you feel that religion should be discussed as freely as any other topic? Or, alternatively, do you feel that so much history is involved in someone’s choice of religion that it is better not to discuss it?
Yes, I do have religious beliefs, and I think it is important to discuss them in some contexts, but I am a fervent believer in the glorious American tradition of the separation of church and state, and I try to have my best characters
—my heroines and heroes
—defend that view as well.
Both of Sam’s wives, Carolina and Mei-hua, have no mothers or maternal influence of their own to help them acquire knowledge of sexual practices and traditional marital relations. Carolina often laments that fact and it comes up that they both have questions about sex that cannot be answered—though none of the male characters ever voice that same trepidation. Do you feel that that sense of unknowing is a thing of the past? How do you think sex education should be approached when it comes to women?
Women of the period of this story were expected to be exemplars of all “virtue,” whatever their menfolk did or did not do. It is unlikely that Carolina’s mother would have taught her differently had she lived. In the matter of Mei-hua she does have Ah Chee, and because she comes out of a tradition of concubinage we presume she has been taught how to please a man. Moreover, the story strongly implies that she passes that knowledge on to Mei Lin. In neither case, however, does a woman’s own pleasure come into the equation. As for our time, it’s hard to believe in any mystery about sex that applies more to young women then to young men. Just look at such popular television fare as Friends. As for how we should teach sex today, my strongest belief is that we ought to teach responsibility. You must not have kids you’re not ready to raise and provide for, and you shouldn’t engage in any activity without being aware of the complexity of its emotional and moral implications. That’s probably not sex-ed so much as life-ed. And it’s no doubt better taught by parents than by teachers, though certainly there is a role for the latter.
Why did you feel it was important to include boats and advances in water travel in the book? In your opinion, is it part of what allowed New York to evolve so rapidly? Is it a nod toward the constant influx of immigrants?
Both of the above. I am constantly awed by the courage of the immigrants past and present, and left breathless by the imagination and daring of those who envision new ways to solve old problems. Nowhere has that been more a hallmark of development than in New York — making it a greater shame that, for instance, the city has taken so long rebuilding at Ground Zero. I often think the Turners and Devreys would have gotten it done faster and better.
A striking part of the society we encounter in City of God
is the role that gossip plays in provoking the characters to act one way or another. Carolina says plainly to William Astor at his father’s funeral, “People say many things, Mr. Astor. Most of them are not particularly important” (page 379). Do you think this applies more to society back then than today?
Good God, no! What else is all our sound-bite TV passing for news, and all our endless talk shows and blogs and celebrity mania if not gossip in more and better and bigger forms than anything they thought of in the nineteenth century!
Have you ever traveled to China to visit Mei-hua and Ah Chee’s homeland? Ever been aboard a sampan? Or, if not, has researching these characters made you want to go?
I’ve never been to China, but I would love to go.
In the final lines of the book, Mei Lin tells Nick: “’We are all, every moment, in the hands of God, Dr. Turner.’” To which he replies, “’So they tell me, Mei Lin. So they tell me’” (page 519). Why did you find it necessary to end on a religious note, in the same way that you began the book? Is it a struggle that will continue to influence the lives of the characters of the series?
Nick is a thoughtful man, as this book shows from the beginning, a man who gains wisdom during the course of the story. As such he has come to know that there are no certitudes in this life. That he would struggle to believe Mei Lin’s words in the face of the carnage that was the Civil War is hardly surprising. In my view the fact that the answers that religion offers are neither simple nor easy doesn’t make religion less true or less believable. As for ending the story by addressing its underlying theme, all novelists are guilty of wanting to tie up the package. I sometimes think that’s why we write fiction. We can make it tidier than life.
Any chance we’ll follow the Turner and Devrey and Klein heritage all the way to modern times? Do you already imagine offspring of these lineages in the New York of today?
I have plans that would take the series up to the 1920s, but I haven’t thought of anything beyond that.