Excerpt from City of Dreams by Beverly Swerling, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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City of Dreams

A Novel of Early Manhattan

by Beverly Swerling

City of Dreams
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2001, 591 pages
    Jun 2002, 592 pages

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In New England a shared theology created order. In the seething mix of nationalities, beliefs, and nonbeliefs that the Dutch West India Company had created in Nieuw Amsterdam, not even an iron fist like Stuyvesant's could alter the fact that the making of a quick fortune was a disorderly and a boisterous affair. Once they had money, men -- particularly the trappers and traders and sailors who crowded the town's narrow streets -- craved pleasure. A good number of the upstanding Dutch burghers liked something on the side as well.

Whores were tolerated as long as they kept themselves to Princes Street and did not mingle with the good Netherlander huisvrouwen. There were twenty-one taverns, taprooms, and alehouses in the little town. The mix pleased Lucas: fucking and boozing led to arguments and mayhem. A man of his skills was bound to be kept occupied.

Stuyvesant had assigned him a tiny shop built against the easternmost end of the wooden palisade that gave Wall Street its name. Lucas's place was really a lean-to, no more than five long strides in each direction. There was no window, only a fireplace against the back wall, and across from it a door split horizontally in the Dutch fashion. "The wily bastard just barely managed to keep his promise," Lucas told Sally. "It's almost inside the town." Nonetheless, a steady stream of customers found him from the first day he banged the striped red-and-white pole into the summer-parched earth outside the door.

A good many came to be bled, often for the aftermath of drink. Lucas was not entirely sure that opening a blood vessel in the temple of the sufferer, or even setting the leeches to him, really would relieve the nausea and the pounding headache, but it could do no harm.

Large quantities of rum and geneva could also be counted on to result in broken bones that needed to be set. Lucas built a sturdy wooden frame to assist him in carefully aligning fractured arms and legs before forcing them back into position. The ship's surgeons who were his only competition in the colony -- mostly men who stayed a short time, then got restless and went again to sea -- set bones by brute force, using as many vicious yanks as the patient could endure. The pain was equally intense using Lucas's frame, but the results were far more satisfactory. He put the apparatus to use three or four times a week.

Also thanks to drunkenness, he was twice asked to trepan a man's skull. Desperate huisvrouwen hoped that boring a couple of holes in a husband's head might rid him of his craving for alcohol. Lucas knew that was unlikely, but he had recently made himself a new drill and was interested in refining his trepanning techniques. Those two operations were among the most interesting he performed during his first few months in Nieuw Amsterdam. They occupied a page each in his journal.

From the day he set up shop, Lucas made copious notes about every procedure, even ordinary barbering -- delousing and shaving and bleeding and lancing boils -- but he took special pains to write in detail about the more intricate surgeries, cutting away fistulas and tumors and removing stones. He did a great deal of the latter. Since the operation on Stuyvesant he'd become famous for it. Sufferers made the journey to his little room beside the wall from remote farms on the long island and Staten Island. Some arrived from as far north as Nieuw Haarlem. One came from a large holding, a bouwerie, in Yonkers.

At first it was Lucas's speed that mattered. He knew it didn't hurt his reputation when he had whoever accompanied the patient stand on one side of the room and count the seconds between the initial cut and the last stitch. But in the autumn, after Sally's first crop of poppies bloomed, Lucas was best known for the fact that he could, with a few spoonfuls of one of his sister's decoctions, make the patient so groggy and fill his head with such soporific dreams that he felt considerably less pain.

Copyright © 2001 by MichaelA, Ltd.

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