This reading group guide for City of Promise 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 City of Promise
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, the fourth novel in Beverly Swerling’s City
series, brings to life a New York City humming with potential: opulent buildings are transforming the city’s skyline; elevated trains are sparking the city’s movement uptown; immigrant laborers are pouring into Five Points and powering the industrial boom; and the Brooklyn Bridge, a symbol of astounding innovation, is rising steadily in the background. In City of Promise
, Joshua Turner, a young man who has lost a leg in the Civil War, capitalizes on this cacophony of late-nineteenth century industry and becomes one of the city’s first real estate tycoons. Early on Josh marries Mollie Brannigan, raised by her remarkable Auntie Eileen in the finest brothel in New York. Mollie uses her cleverness and her understanding of how things work in the city to support and expand her husband’s growing empire. Then tragedy strikes and Mollie retreats into silent pain, shutting out Josh and all else except the garden she builds in the wilderness of the Upper East Side, while Josh goes on to still greater accomplishments without her. Until the moment when both Mollie's life and Joshua's fortune are threatened by an enemy they can only defeat together, and in a few hectic hours all New York makes choices that will determine the future. TOPICS & QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. Which plot twists in City of Promise
did you predict, if any, and which twists took you by surprise? Of the following characters, whom did you like better at the end of the story? Zachary Devrey, Tess o' the Roses, Solomon Ganz, Eileen, Trenton Clifford, Ebenezer Tickle.
2. Did you feel that the characters grew and changed as the novel progressed? Do you like a story more when there is such change, or do you prefer to stay with the characters as you first get to know them?
3. Did Swerling's description of how easy it was for a family like that of Ollie Crump to become destitute and wind up in a rookery shock you? Do you imagine that kind of abrupt change of fortune can happen today? If you do, what do you think of what progress we have made as a society?
4. Did the novel make you feel differently about P.T. Barnum and his famous circus? Do you think Tom Thumb or Ebenezer Tickle to be better off?
5. In City of Promise
Mama Jack's Cave is an important venue, do you think there are any parallels in modern society?
6. Swerling wrote that Eileen had “spared [Mollie] the horror of growing up in some depraved Five Points rat-infested hovel with the rest of the drunken, brawling, dirt-poor Irish who poured into the city looking for a dream and finding a nightmare,” while mere blocks away, and further uptown, wealthy New Yorkers lounged in mansions of unprecedented lavishness and expense. (p. 20) Do you think such shocking levels of inequality still exist in America today? Why or why not?
7. City of Promise
is, in many ways, a history of the industrial development of New York City. Which aspects of the industrial growth did you find most impressive in scope, creativity, or plain ambitiousness? Which aspects struck you as fairly obvious in retrospect? Were you surprised to learn of the advent of telephones and elevators and electricity during the period 1864 - 1883? Did you think any of those things to have come about earlier or later?
8. City of Promise
depicts a New York City run almost exclusively by wealthy white men. Bribery regularly greased the wheels of governments both official and informal, women couldn’t vote, upward mobility largely eluded the immigrant tenements and slums, and closed-door meetings of a select few often determined the fates of many. In what ways are America’s cities and governments different now—and in what ways are they still the same?
9. Eileen Brannigan and Mollie Turner both gave “little donations” to various officials in exchange for information and protection. As Eileen explained to Mollie, “Never forget, the authorities must be dealt with….I believe in looking after those who can look after you.” (pp. 35-6) Given the historical context, do you think these small bribes were ethically sound? At what point, if ever, does the prevalence of an action justify its being taken?
10. Discuss the societal constraints placed on women in City of Promise
. How did they exert influence in their daily lives despite these expectations?
11. According to Eileen, women had three options in life: as she said to a young Mollie, “‘Since I am opposed to your being a spinster and you’re too lean and too clever to be a whore, you must be a wife.’” (p. 39) Why were the options for women so limited at the time? At what point in the past century do you think women started breaking out of these prescribed roles? Do you think women are entirely free of these expectations today?
12. In what ways did the women in City of Promise
subtly control and influence the industrial growth of the city?
13. Eileen described the male fantasy that she catered to in her whorehouse as “the one in a man’s most hidden heart: That a woman who looked and sounded and acted like the demure and chaste creature he thought he’d married would, once they were in the bedroom, behave as the willing, even lusty, companion of his most secret imagining.” (p. 22) Given the societal expectations of the time that women remain completely pure until marriage, do you see this fantasy as more of a fleeting hope, a realistic goal, or a hypocritical demand? Do you think this kind of expectation still exists?
14. Mollie considered herself firmly ensconced in spinsterhood at 20 years old, while today’s median age at marriage is 26 for women without a high school diploma, and 30 for women with a college degree (per the U.S. Census). In addition, Ollie Crump began working full-time for Mollie and Josh as a child, an arrangement that would be illegal in America today. Given these two examples, how—and why—do you think our society’s views on adolescence and growing up have changed since the late 1800s?
15. How did Mollie’s upbringing in Aunt Eileen’s whorehouse, and Eileen’s advice to her niece, influence Mollie’s marriage and her views on sexuality?
16. When Mollie showed up at the wedding of Ebenezer Tickle and Maude Pattycake in her daring, pregnant-figure-flaunting dress, Josh immediately recognized the message she intended to send: her husband, despite his peg leg, was a real man. In what other ways did men prove their masculinity, and women their femininity, in City of Promise
17. After Mollie lost her baby, she grew very quiet and reserved. Only after she started gardening did life come back to her: “She stretched out both arms and held them open, as if she were welcoming someone. A child. No, never. But her embrace was not quite as empty as it had been before.” (p. 339) Why do you think Mollie felt so comforted by her garden?
18. Swerling wrote that after the financial crash of 1874, “the streets were full of newly made beggars and tramps and half naked children become urchins overnight. Work or bread was the cry. The response was a demand for patience, and the customary diatribes about the evils of overmuch charity.” (p. 334) Compare this financial crash to the recent Great Recession. Allowing for changes in technology and government support systems, do you think history is bound to repeat itself?
19. If you’ve read Swerling’s other City
books, or any other historical novels that take place in a big city during the Gilded Age, how does this book measure up in terms of historical detail and richness? If you haven’t read any similar novels, do you feel you have a solid grasp of Gilded Age New York after reading this book?
20. Swerling wrote, “All prayers are answered. Sometimes, however, the answer is no.” (p. 174) What do you think the men and women in City of Promise
prayed for? Whose prayers were granted, and whose were denied?
21. Consider the book’s title: City of Promise
. What was promised, and to whom, in this story? Which promises are broken, and which are kept? ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. Do a bit of research on the New York City brought to life in City of Promise
, and bring your findings to book club. Perhaps divide up topics amongst yourselves, and present your research to one another. Possible areas of research include, but certainly aren’t limited to: Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall; women’s rights in the late 1800s; the financial crash of 1874; the creation of subways in New York; Belle Isle prison camp; the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge; P.T. Barnum and his traveling shows; Five Points and the tenements in New York; and the northern expansion of New York real estate in the late 1800s.
2. Pick a movie to watch after your book club meeting that dovetails with some of the many themes in City of Promise
. Consider the following films:
(1938)Dir. George Cukor; with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The free-spirited Johnny Case finds himself engaged to the daughter of a wealthy New York industrialist who expects Johnny to buckle down and work in big business.
b. Life with Father
(1947)Dir. Michael Curtiz; with William Powell, Irene Dunne, and Elizabeth Taylor. A comedy, set in 1880s New York, about a wealthy businessman who tries—and often fails—to run his large family as strictly and efficiently as his business.
c. The Heiress
(1949)Dir. William Wyler; with Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson. A romance, set in mid-1800s New York, that follows a plain yet wealthy woman as she falls for a handsome yet poor man, to her father’s deep disapproval.
d. The Age of Innocence
(1993)Dir. Martin Scorsese; with Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Winona Ryder. A tale of 19th century New York high society in which a young lawyer falls for a married woman while he is engaged to the woman's cousin.
e. The House of Mirth
(2000)Dir. Terence Davies; with Dan Aykroyd, Gillian Anderson, and Laura Linney. A romantic drama, set in 1890s New York, that tells the heartbreaking story of Lily Bart, a renowned beauty whose search for a wealthy husband ends in tragedy.
f. Gangs of New York
(2002)Dir. Martin Scorsese; with Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis. A saga set in the mid-1800s in the Five Points neighborhood of New York that follows a gang leader in his roles as a crime boss and political kingmaker under Boss Tweed.
3. Research and visit a tea house nearby—or, if you’re up to the challenge, prepare and enjoy your own Gilded Age-themed afternoon tea! You can draw inspiration from the following resources:
a. Afternoon tea menu for the Flagler Museum, a Gilded Age mansion in Palm Beach, FL: www.flaglermuseum.us/visiting/cafe-des-beaux-arts
b. Afternoon tea menu for the Driehaus Museum, a Gilded Age mansion in Chicago, IL: driehausmuseum.org/visit/program-list.php?group_id=8
c. Site with excerpts from the 1889 book “The Home Manual”: www.thecompletevictorian.com/PlanningATea.html
d. Site with food and tea tray suggestions: www.plannersguide.com/tea_party.htm
e. Site with many links to other tea-related resources: www.mostly-victorian.com/links/food.shtml
4. Indulge in the lifestyle of Gilded Age business tycoons with your book club:
a. Plan a visit to a garden like Mollie’s near you. Visit www.gardenvisit.com and search for local gardens and nurseries, or visit a local arboretum.
b. Take a carriage ride, if you have access to a stable that offers them. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, take a horseback riding lesson with your book club! Visit www.equinenow.com/lessons.htm to search for stables that give lessons, including beginner lessons, near you.
c. Research historic mansions near you and plan a group tour.
d. Try living like Josh and Mollie at the beginning of City of Promise
and go without electricity for the first 30 minutes of book club. Turn off your cell phones, swap lights for candles, and light a fire in your fireplace, if you’d like.
e. Sip on sherry, bourbon, whisky, or scotch (or tea as a non-alcoholic option) during your book club.
f. Use lengths of fabric to create skirts that are fitted in front and bustled behind. A CONVERSATION WITH BEVERLY SWERLING On your website (www.beverlyswerling.com), you describe the plot matrix that you write out for each City book. How did you develop your matrix technique?
Because I don't outline I need a way to let my editor and publisher understand the novel I hope to write. The so-called matrix allows me to give them enough information to feel comfortable, and gives me the freedom to let a story develop on the page.Did you intend to write a series of four City novels before you started in on the first one, or did you find yourself wanting to continue the story after each book came to a close?
The latter definitely. I never intended City of Dreams
to be the first in a series. I'd have done it differently if I had. But I heard from numerous readers asking me to take the story "one generation further," so ultimately I did.Which comes first for you—the story or the research?
The story. I begin with characters who are born in my head and linger there, sometimes for many weeks and a story starts to grow around them. Then I go looking for the facts that will shore up my ideas. What (if any) particularly bizarre or surprising historical tidbits about Gilded Age New York surprised you?
I was astonished to discover how bad the traffic was, and how congested the streets. From the beginning of the nineteenth century New Yorkers were overwhelmed by the difficulty of simply getting around in the city, and how long it took to get from one place to another. I had no idea that was such a struggle back then. I thought it must be a modern problem. What is your favorite scene in City of Promise?
I have many, but I love Maude and Ebenezer’s wedding, and the way Mollie gets away from her captors later in the novel.Mama Jack’s Tavern is an incredibly vivid, peculiar, oddly joyful place. What inspired you to create Mama Jack’s? Which details of Mama Jack’s are drawn from your historical research, and which came straight from your imagination?
I first encountered the "Bawdy Houses" that were special kinds of bars and taprooms when researching City of Dreams
and I used that information in that book. Such places play a part in the later books as well and in my mind I sort of thought of Mama Jack's as being an evolution of Martha's bawdy house in City of Dreams
. Readers who have read both books will find the echo of that earlier place in this one that is posited to exist over two centuries later. Did you have any specific promises in mind when you titled this book City of Promise, or do you see the title as more of a metaphor for life in New York?
The book was originally to be called City of Gold
, but the marketing folk at Simon & Schuster thought we were making their lives more difficult by using another 'g' in the title (after City of Glory
and City of God
). I don't remember who first suggested the title City of Promise
, but it was such an obvious and good choice that we adopted it almost immediately. Certainly to this day New York is the nation's City of Promise.Your bio on your website mentions that you started writing nonfiction at first, and branched out into fiction much later. Why did you initially gravitate toward nonfiction, and what caused the eventual shift?
That's easy. Nonfiction is a great deal easier to write than fiction. I had to muster my courage. Where did you live in Europe? Did your time abroad enhance your interest in history and historical fiction?
We have lived extensively in England, France, and Lanzarote in the Canary Islands (belongs to Spain). I have always been a history buff, but Europe certainly whets that appetite to understand.Your bio on Simon & Schuster’s website describes you as an “amateur historian.” Did you study history in college? If not, what motivated your foray into history?
I have no professional training in history (I was—no surprise—an English major). But I learned that if you are rigorous in your pursuit of the facts and rely as much as possible on prime sources, you can come up with credible information. That is particularly true in a series based on the growth of New York City. The sources are dizzying in their variety and availability. As I have said before, in the matter of research New York on New York is as good as it gets. How did you get into the consulting and mentoring side of book publishing? Do you find that working with new writers helps your own craft?
My husband runs Agent Research & Evaluation, Inc., an online business that for fifteen years has been helping writers find the right agent. I sometimes act as a consultant to that business—bringing the writer’s point of view—and over the years I've become more and more involved with many of the clients. It’s enormously gratifying, particularly when they go on to publication and success. I'm as thrilled as they are.If you could time-travel to any single historical period in New York City, which era would you visit and why?
Probably the gilded age of City of Promise
—enough comforts not to be too daunting, and all that wonderful glitz and glamour. I'd like to be at the dinner Thomas Edison gave to introduce the incandescent light bulb, or see President Arthur cut the ribbon to open the Brooklyn Bridge.