They came by boat from a starving land -- and by the Underground Railroad from Southern chains -- seeking refuge in a crowded, filthy corner of hell at the bottom of a great metropolis. But in the terrible July of 1863, the poor and desperate of Paradise Alley would face a new catastrophe -- as flames from the war that was tearing America in two reached out to set their city on fire.
- American Book Award
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December 31, 2005
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Excerpt from Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker
He is coming.
Ruth leaned out the door as far as she dared, peering down Paradise Alley to the west and the south. Past the other narrow brick and wood houses along Cherry Street, slouching against each other for support. The grey mounds of ashes and bones, oyster shells and cabbage leaves and dead cats growing higher every day since the street cleaners had gone out.
Fire bells were already ringing off in the Sixth Ward, somewhere near the Five Points. The air thick with dust and ash and dried horse droppings, the sulfurous emissions of the gasworks along the river, and the rendering plants and the hide-curing plants. It was not yet six in the morning but she could feel the thin linen of her dress sticking to the soft of her back.
"The good Lord, in all His mercy, must be readyin' us for Hell ' "
She searched the horizon for any sign of relief. Their weather came from the west, the slate-grey, fecund clouds riding in over the Hudson. That was how she expected him to come, too, fierce and implacable as a summer storm. His rage breaking over them all.
He is coming
But there was no storm just yet. The sky was still a dull, jaundiced color, the blue tattered and wearing away at the edges. She ventured a step out into the street, looking hard, all the way downtown, past the church steeples and the block-shaped warehouses, the dense thicket of masts around lower Manhattan.
There was nothing out of the ordinary. Just the usual shapeless forms lying motionless in the doorways. A ragged child with a stick, a few dogs. A fruit peddler with his bright yellow barrow. His wares, scavenged from the barges over on the West Side, already pungent and overripe.
Nothing coming. But then, it wasn't likely he would come from the west anyway '
With a muted cry she swung around, then ducked back into her house, bolting the door behind her while she fought for breath. The idea that he could have been coming up behind her the whole time. She remembered how quickly he could move. She could feel his hands on her, could see the yellow dog's bile rising in his eyes. That merciless anger, concentrated solely upon her '
She had not truly believed it before now ' not even after Deirdre had come over to tell her yesterday afternoon. Standing there on her doorstone, one foot still in the street as if she were hanging on to the shore. Wearing her modest black church dress, her beautiful face even sterner than usual. She was a regular communicant, Sundays and Fridays ' no doubt especially agitated to have to see Ruth on the Lord's day. She told her the news in a low voice, all but whispering to her. Deirdre herself, whispering, as if somehow he might overhear.