Books

Jonathan Carr
Make Me a City

Make Me a City is a biography of Chicago in its first, dynamic century, and a wondrous, bold and playful first novel. Seductively fascinating characters, real and imagined, populate this fiction with their interweaving and intergenerational stories. But the hero’s journey belongs to the city itself. It begins in 1800, when “Echicagou” was but a “desolate, marshy place”, traditional homeland of the Potawatomie nation and “nothing but a place of passage” for others. By the century’s end, the Potawatomie have been banished to “camps”, and Chicago, home to more than 1.5 million, is well on its way to becoming one of North America’s most vital – if violent – cities.

To get there, Chicago must fight elemental battles with water and wind and catastrophic fire. Its working class, many of whom are Irish and Swedish immigrants, is scarred and toughened by the labour of digging the canals, laying the railway tracks and raising the buildings that create great wealth, mostly for others. Although swampland gives way to factories and shops, streets and houses, the stench of corruption and racial division thickens the air.

Make Me a City begins with an excerpt from an “alternative history” published in 1902 by a Professor Milton Winship. The excerpt concerns the city’s first settler, Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable, the “mulatto” son of a Frenchman and a freeborn slave. By 1800, Pointe de Sable, married to a Potawatomie woman, is a prosperous farmer and trader. Along comes John Kinzie, a menacing and violent white man “whose own parentage was of dubious worth, to say nothing of his character”. Kinzie bullies Pointe de Sable into selling him his house and possessions, and a whitewashed history celebrates him as Chicago’s first pioneer.

Curiosity drove me to the internet many times while reading Make Me a City. Pointe de Sable, it turns out, was real enough, though other records spell his name “Point du Sable”. Kinzie was real as well, and may or may not have been the violent, entitled thug portrayed here. He did buy the house that Pointe de Sable built and loved, though little is known about the circumstances of the sale, which in the fictional version involves a high-stakes game of chess. In reality, it took Chicago until the 1970s to publicly honour Pointe de Sable’s place in its history. Given the “patchwork of threads” that is the historical legacy, Winship explains in an interview with the journalist Antje Hunter, “I believe the historian has a duty to try to stitch them together.”

Winship and Hunter are themselves fictional stitches in history, the interview and Winship’s book just two of the narrative devices in the crazy-quilting that is Make Me a City. There are, too, the emotionally overwrought letters of a young teacher to her best friend, a young girl’s diary of a school visit to an “Indian camp”, a sleazy doctor’s journal, newspaper clippings, Potawatomie legends, notes for an exhibition catalogue, and more. There are third-person, first-person and even second-person narratives; testimonies in Irish, Swedish and other accents; and voices that range from the prim and pious to the rough-and-ready. We follow families through the generations and track items – a pocket watch, a necklace, a painting – as they pass from hand to hand, acquiring layers of meaning and becoming as much a part of the imagined city’s structure as its streets, canals and railways. Chronological order, meanwhile, provides the rails along which this tale of one city steams – for all its complexity, and its lack of a single protagonist, once you’re aboard it’s an exhilarating ride.

Along the way Jonathan Carr explains how things work – how logjams were cleared and balloon houses built. His use of period language is a special joy: “honey-fugged”, “flapdoodle”, “rantankerous”. He has a genius, too, for simile and metaphor. The desks in a busy newsroom look like “listing wrecks, submerged beneath piles of papers, old files, books, notepads, ashtrays and coffee cups”, and an Irishman laments “a bitter morning, colder than a Presbyterian charity”.

Make Me a City focuses typically not on the “great men” of Chicago’s history but on those whose lives, as Winship notes, “in more traditional studies of the past, have been consigned to footnotes”. Part of the conceit of the novel is that this is a revolutionary proposition, as it would have been when the imaginary Winship was writing his “alternative history”, even if it’s a most rudimentary premise in historical studies today. The novel’s weakest moments occur where it appears that Carr is worried we haven’t completely understood his intentions: “How important do you think a place is? In a story, I mean?” Antje Hunter conveniently asks her husband. Their conversation reads like the most self-conscious of metanarratives. “I don’t believe facts need to be precise,” her husband later remarks, “as long as the gist is true.” Yes, yes, got it.

As a young girl, Hunter meets a Potawatomie elder and, precociously woke, wonders: “Why were white people and Indians not friends? And why did Indians not have their own land like white people?” The elder explains that apart from the Great Spirit, who gives land to all his children, no one actually “owns” land. That may be a profound insight, but such talk is whistling into the wind in the property-obsessed United States – and Chicago is windier than most places.

Perhaps the most archetypal Chicagoan in the book is John Wright, a historical figure we first meet in 1834 when he is a young man making a killing in real estate, buying and flipping land. Though a churchgoing Christian, he can’t quite bring himself to condemn slavery, which becomes a contentious issue as the American Civil War looms. His equivocation portends disaster for his personal life, even as he grows rich and influential. There’s a subtle lesson here: if the wealth and success of a man or a city are built not just on grit and entrepreneurship but on dispossession and exploitation, then there will always be a crack in the foundations.

Linda Jaivin

Scribe, 512pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Jonathan Carr, Make Me a City". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Linda Jaivin