Review: Make Me a City

“The nearer I get to the end, the more shame I have and the less shame I feel. Every year we pile it up, don’t we, all of us excepting the angels? Maybe that’s why we don’t all go lunatic. And why some of us do.”

Make Me a City (Jonathan Carr, published March 2019 by Henry Holt) is an intriguing tome—marketed as a fictional and “alternate history” to the building of Chicago, the novel is told by a narrator who is, in fact, presenting an alternate history to his peers. Following many disparate threads of remarkably different individuals over the course of one century, the work is exhaustive and, more than once, I wondered how much was rooted in truth (I mean, obviously, I know it’s fiction, but still). Beginning in 1800 “Echicagou” on the estate of Jean Baptiste Point de Sable—unrecognized and sadly victimized founder of the city—and later touching on the vivid lives of John Stephen Wright, Antje Hunter, Gus Swanson, and many others; the novel progresses through time, idling from one strand of the story to the next, offering readers an exhaustive collection of character portraits to feast upon. Each individual is distinctly crafted, each featuring his or her own fears and desires and fervent ambitions, all of which contribute to the city’s creation.

I enjoyed the novel’s odd collection of hosts and found the chapters about Antje, Gus, and Ms. Chappell the most engaging. Historical nuggets can be mined from the pages of the work—though fictional, there are many references to real players in our country’s history, and episodes portraying cultural nuances vividly.

More than once, though, I wondered . . . what is the point? The plot is very loosely constructed, and over the course of 450 pages, readers’ minds are apt to wander without a clear purpose driving the work forward. I know, I know: the point is to give an alternate, fictionalized history of Chicago. But I can’t help but feel that Carr was misled by his editor at times, where narratives could have been trimmed or eliminated altogether.

By and large, the breadth of the work was overwhelming. I had to turn back several times to recall key details from previous scenes—I think there are about 12 perspectives through the novel, with 5-6 major players—and was sometimes frustrated by this. However, when a work is interesting, I’ll overlook this annoyance; and I suppose that the fact I finished the novel speaks for itself. Once the pieces began to come together, I couldn’t finish fast enough.

Overall: 3-ish(?) stars. Recommended for historical fiction buffs, mindful readers (this is not an easy/light read, folks!), and fans of generation-spanning sagas.

Thanks to Henry Holt Books for my review copy. All opinions are my own.