How did you decide to set your book in Boston?
CONNIE MAYO: Some authors think of their story first and then find a good setting. For me, it was the opposite - I knew I wanted to write about The Boston Farm School on Thompson Island before I knew anything about the story.
I was fascinated with the idea of 100 boys ages 8 to 14 living on an island at the turn of the century, in the same building with their (female) teachers and all the staff. When I finally worked out the details, I decided that my protagonists start the story in Boston and end up conning their way into this school in the middle of the book. So I ended up needing to do a lot of research on turn-of-the-century Boston.
But a weird thing happened with all that Googling - occasionally, I would turn up things about New York City. No other city, just New York. And soon it became clear that for many years, these two cities had a fierce rivalry going on, starting way before there was baseball.
HALLIE: Why those two cities?
CONNIE: They have had polar-opposite personalities. Think of Boston, founded by Puritans, as the pious aunt who's saying things like "cleanliness is next to godliness", and New York, established by Dutch traders, as the fun uncle who passes you a beer at family dinners.
And yet with these wildly different cultures, they were both port cities at similar stages of development. New York commerce leaps ahead with the opening of the Erie Canal! But wait, Boston forges ahead as a leader in rail transportation! Always trying to best each other. Ultimately, New York - second largest city in the world in 1900, behind London - had the undeniable advantage of just being much bigger than Boston.
But what I found fascinating was that both cities had these royalty-like families that ruled the roost - the Brahmins in Boston and the Knickerbockers in New York. And this is what I believe makes both cities such great backdrops for novels set at the turn of the century.
You had these hideously rich and snobby elitists in neighborhoods not too far away from just the rankest, most impoverished areas. The most infamous was Five Points in New York, at the tip of Manhattan. For crime, disease and debauchery, it just couldn't be beat - and less than four miles away, you had the residences of the Astors and the Vanderbilts. The contrasts in New York were inspirational for books such as Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Lindsey Faye's The Gods of Gotham and Charles Belfoure's House of Thieves, to name a few.
For Boston, it was the Brahmins of Beacon Hill and Back Bay, who counted among them selves families of U.S. Presidents (Adams, Coolidge, Delano), current politicians (John Kerry, Bill Weld, Lincoln Chafee) and educational institutions (Choate, Emerson). They even inspired their own poem, "Boston Toast":
And this is good old Boston,These families lived just a few miles from the brothels and saloons of Scollay Square and the Waterfront district. All that contrast gave us Boston-based books like Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, and Katherine Howe's The House of Velvet and Glass.
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.
And yet, I didn't choose to depict the Boston upper classes in your novel. There came a point at which I just became oversaturated with the descriptions of opulence - it started to seem like wealth porn. I remember reading a book a few years ago where there were all these New York debutante balls with abundant descriptions of tiaras and gowns, and when there came a line describing the 18 buttons on the girl's gloves, I just closed the book. It seemed so vacuous when I knew that only miles away, there were people with real problems - hunger, bad sanitation, basic needs not being met.
This huge disparity of wealth in both these cities at the turn of the century is relevant in today's world.After all, it was in 2011 that the phrase "We Are the 99%" was coined. Seems like they could have used that more than a century ago.
So who wins the literary setting smackdown between Boston and New York? I think art imitates life. New York won the commerce rivalry, in part due to the super-sized wealth of the Knickerbockers. An afternoon of mansion tours in Newport will attest to that. And I think that ultimately attracts more authors to write about the outsized lives that these families lived - and the infamy of Five Points, which was just legendary. That's fine with me, because I felt like it gave me more space to write something original about Boston.
HALLIE: So to me as a former New Yorker living near Boston, the "rivalry" between the cities (except for baseball) has always seemed silly. Now I appreciate its roots.
So Reds, weigh in! Is it the wealthy or the commoners who fascinate you? New York or Boston? Connie is giving away a copy of THE ISLAND OF WORTHY BOYS to one lucky commenter.
About THE ISLAND OF WORTHY BOYS
Orphaned in 1889 Boston at age ten, Charles has survived alone on the streets for years, rolling drunks and sleeping in alleys. He's convinced himself he doesn't need anyone. But when his old schoolmate Aidan shows up asking to be cut in, they team up to rob drunken sailors whenever the whores don't get there first. Life is pretty grand, until a routine robbery takes a murderous turn, and they have to skip town before they're cuffed and thrown in the back of the paddy wagon.
With the help of a prostitute that owes Charles a favor, the boys pose as virtuous Protestant brothers and con their way into an island school in Boston Harbor that only admits the "worthy poor". Superintendent Bradley is obsessed with keeping the bad element out of his school, so the boys need to keep their story straight. But their friendship splinters when Aidan's assimilation with the other boys leaves Charles out in the cold. When another boy sniffs out the Irish Catholic in Aidan, and Boston's Finest arrive on the island, the boys must decide: do they face the threat of jail together, or risk being split up forever?