The Great Mistake By Jonathan Lee

As regular readers may have noticed, a New York background is catnip to me, which made Jonathan Lee’s the Great Mistake almost irresistible. I also have fond memories of reading her book Joy, which was featured in one of my first posts, when I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with this Blog. Lee’s novel is the reinterpretation of the life of a largely forgotten man, although he was nicknamed “the father of the New York Metropolitan area” during his lifetime: Andrew Haswell Green, executed on the steps of his own home at the age of eighty-three.

His father looked at him and said with a bitter little smile, only a dog wants approval, Andrew, the seventh of eleven children, Green grew up on a farm in Massachusetts, his father drowned his inability and misery to drink. At the age of fifteen, he was sent to a grocery store in New York to ensure the family’s finances, where he met the wealthy Samuel Tilden and began the most striking, albeit changing, relationship of his life. A catastrophic collapse in Green’s health was followed by a year as an overseer on a sugar plantation in Trinidad, where he returned determined to make something of himself and renew his friendship with Tilden, leading him to become a lawyer and after a philanthropist.determined to build a park to restore the health of the citizens of New York and their polluted city.

At the end of his long career, which lasted until his assassination, Green was the driving force behind many of the city’s attractions, from Central Park, with its many gates named after the professions of the townspeople, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Bridge. The powered passed away of this silent and disinterested public figure by a melon marksman leaves the detective investigating him confused about his lack of motivation until a revelation is experienced.

She seemed to understand what he himself had seen recently: that the past was as much a work of imagination as the future of this man, who played such an important role in the founding of the city, which symbolizes so much for so many people. There are no large buildings named after him, no foundation dedicated to his memory, although there is a hidden bank in Central Park named after him. Lee promises to save his subject from the darkness with touching tenderness for this man who died childless and unmarried, unable to celebrate his relationship with the love of his life as anything other than friendship. Green’s story is interspersed with an investigation into his seemingly baseless execute that has puzzled detectives for so long. He paints a portrait of a lonely and frustrated man who puts his energy into the development of his city, a public figure known to very few people and sometimes sensitive despite his many successes. Lee’s prose is a bit too stylized for my taste, but it is imbued with a pleasant, often artful joke, and his story is captivating, full of details and anecdotes from The New York ERA. It ends with solving the riddle of the execute that you can easily find through Wikipedia if you want, although I prefer not to reveal it. A pleasant re-enactment of a fascinating life, it made me wonder if a twenty-first century public figure of such stature would so easily fall into oblivion.

Gwendolyn B. Baggett

Gwendolyn B. Baggett

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