|Peter van der Donck|
Some books are so good they can make you tedious. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America has made me into a bore. I’ll drone on about why we say “cookies” instead of “biscuits” and why Yonkers is called Yonkers. This book is chock-full of historical tidbits and trivia about the formative period of New England, which help its thesis go down. Shorto believes the democratic, inclusive spirit of the United States was born not with a bunch of theocratic Pilgrims, but with the Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam.
The heart of this book, which lends credence and drama to that thesis, is the story of a legal battle, and a battle for control of the new colony, between two key figures. The idealistic Adriaen van der Donck wants more representation for the colony representatives, and the colony director Peter Stuyvesant wants to maintain his own central power, and have van der Donck put in shackles for treason. The conflict comes to a head back in the not-so-old country, the Netherlands—itself a rather modern construct in a time when feudal history determined most geography—in what was becoming a formative period of democratic nascence. The result of this legalistic and political wrangling almost birthed a more representative government in the New World—until yet another war broke out and ruined everything. Soon the English took over the colony and made it New York. Still, Shorto maintains, the key ingredients for a more inclusive and cosmopolitan United States had been baked into the mix.
Does Shorto repeat his theory about the spirit of tolerance a few too many times? Does the book occasionally get bogged down in too many historical details in some spots, and then get fuzzy in others? Do we hear about the guy who’s transcribing a mother lode of old Dutch documents too many times? Does my rhetorically asking these questions negate the need for an answer?
Still, the writing is for the most part fluid and clear, making connections between seemingly disparate historical facts and building suspense. Also, there are those glorious tidbits, such as the cruel fate of Henry Hudson and the origin of coleslaw. To be clear, those are two different stories; Henry Hudson was not torn apart in a cabbage shredding machine.
There’s a popular TV show called Gotham, which lays out the story of young Bruce Wayne. The key to its enjoyment is savoring the slow reveal of bits of the origin story of Batman. The Island at the Center of the World is the origin story of the real Gotham, and with it, the real America. Our heroes wore white wigs and pantaloons instead of bat ears, but this is the story behind their story, and it’s a delight.