With New Amsterdam now but a brief footnote in most history books, Dutch heritage may be lost to most New Yorkers, but it is palpable nonetheless. Dutch New York still lingers today in the names of many places in the Hudson Valley, from Brooklyn and the Bronx all the way up to Voorheesville and Rensselaer in the Capital Region. Take the Bowery, for example: bowerijin Dutch means “farm,” in this case Peter Stuyvesant’s farm, which was located near what is now trendy Soho. It’s sobering to think that the Bowery’s original tenants were goats and horses. Ask anyone about the American Revolution and they will more than likely describe it as a struggle between the imperial British and their upstart colonists (and for those who paid attention in ninth-grade history, some Hessians for good measure); but of course, the struggle involved many other factions, not the least of which were the Dutch families who had settled in the Hudson Valley long before anyone dumped tea into Boston harbor.
In her historical novel Land So Fair, Firth Haring Fabend explores three generations of Dutch American women and their families living in New York during the years before and during the American Revolution. Fabend employs a historian’s eye for detail in creating an impressive backdrop of the Hudson Valley during the second half of the eighteenth century; historical icons such as the Sons of Liberty, George Washington, and General Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in chief of North America, make their presences known. The novel explores the violent conflicts not only between the armies, but between next-door neighbors, some loyal to the Crown, others loyal to the idea of independence. Here is a depiction of the American Revolution that shows the struggle on a smaller scale, with war going door-to-door in some cases. Readers will undoubtedly enjoy the fresh perspective Fabend employs here in bringing history to life.
However, the real strength of this novel, may lie in the development of its female characters, particularly the younger Margaret, who is exceedingly well-defined as a girl growing up to be a woman aware of her family’s traditions but also looking toward what the future may bring. Margaret’s story can be seen as the story of that time in American history itself, a transition that would require sacrifice, strength, and above all a strong sense of community. The names and basic biographical information of Fabend’s main characters are real, but the characters are more than just historical stick figures. They are fleshed out by detail and character development.
For any historical novel set on such a grand scale, the greatest challenge for an author is to create characters with an engrossing narrative thread while depicting historical figures, places, and events accurately. Fabend does not shy away from this challenge. Instead of merely shifting back and forth between the story of the Blauvelt women and the larger context of the American Revolution, she chooses to meld the frames together at various points. Many times the characters are thrust headlong into their historical backdrop with exciting results: “Margaret...and the child clambered out of the cellar, hastily packed a few effects and fled to the Hudson River, along with scores of others with the same idea: to find a boat, any boat, to take them to security across the river. Margaret lost a shoe in the process, but she didn’t stop for it. Half hopping, half running, she hustled her hugely pregnant daughter through the cobbled streets with one thought on her mind: get out of the city.” (219) however, this conflation of fiction and fact might be used too often. By the end, it could prove tedious for some readers who are enveloped in the narrative of Margaret and her family, only to have the characters pushed into yet another scene with historical implications. Readers might want to concentrate more on the interesting lives of these heroic women who find themselves surrounded by war, rather than have them merely defined by that war.
For anyone interested in the largely forgotten Dutch heritage of New York, Land So Fair is an invaluable read, full of interesting and poignant details brought to life in a way that a purely historical text could never accomplish. Author of five previous novels, Fabend is a scholar of Dutch American culture and the eleventh generation of the family she depicts in Land So Fair. That background is clearly used in weaving an accurate and caring portrait that does much to remind all of us that the history of New York is much older and more complex than we may at first think.
-- Tommy Zurhellen