NEW YORK —A huge, blood-red sky seems to engulf two fighting men. One wears a blue uniform and swings his sword. The
other is in gray, bayonet at the ready.
The scene is an ink drawing from the cover of a children’s book, “The Civil War,” written by Fletcher Pratt, with illustrations by Lee J. Ames, and published by Doubleday in 1955. Some of the pages, aged to a tea-colored brown, are patched together with tape.
Kevin Baker says he read the book when he was 4. It was the first book the 44-year-old author ever read, and it helped ignite his obsession with history.
“Paradise Alley” (HarperCollins) is the latest historical novel he has written. It takes place in New York City during one blazing week in the summer of 1863. The Civil War has been raging for two years and already has claimed more than 300,000 lives. President Lincoln institutes the country’s first military draft, which some escape by paying others $300 each to fight for them.
Most workers, who cannot afford the fee, are enraged.
“Sold for three hundred dollars, when a [slave] goes for a thousand” is the rallying cry as they riot in the streets.
Before the Federal troops can reach burning Manhattan, at least 119 people are killed, with “bodies hanging naked and mutilated” from lampposts.
Property damage is in the millions.
“It was the worst civic disturbance America has ever experienced,” Mr. Baker says during an interview at the Upper West Side apartment he shares with his wife, writer Ellen Abrams. Mr. Baker adds that gang members turned the riots into an excuse to loot and destroy. (The riots help shape the end of Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “Gangs of New York.”)
Mr. Baker’s novel was picked as the “Today” show’s December book club selection, and he says he is “thrilled and very honored.”
The book is the second in what he calls his trilogy of fires.
The first, “Dreamland,” is about Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century and leads up to a garment-factory fire. He’s working on the third, “Strivers Row,” about a riot in Harlem in 1943 that ended in the deaths of six people. He expects to have it published in 2005.
American Heritage magazine Editor in Chief Richard Snow says he was so impressed with “Dreamland” that he hired Mr. Baker to be one of his columnists.
He describes Mr. Baker as a “very spirited writer who has a terrific grasp of history” and is able “to capture the texture and feel of another era without slowing down the action.”
Mr. Baker began writing high school sports stories for his local paper when he was 13. He graduated from Columbia University with a major in political science and later was the chief historical researcher for “The American Century,” a book of essays and photos. He published his first book, “Sometimes You See It Coming,” a novel based loosely on the life of baseball player Ty Cobb, in 1993.
His roots are Irish; his family may have come here as early as the Revolutionary War, he says, and there was a Union soldier on his father’s side.
Mr. Baker grew up in Rockport, Mass. His father was an actor who later went to work at a local post office. His mother, who taught him to read when he was 3, worked at various jobs and later went to school to become a social worker.
“Reading did keep me from being bored,” he says. “Growing up, I could never understand why so many kids liked to simply hang out, doing nothing. As long as I had a book I could always entertain myself, could endure almost any wait or long trip.”
The family was poor and on and off public assistance.
“If there’s ever a good place to be poor, Rockport, Mass., was certainly it,” Mr. Baker says. “We had a house albeit mortgaged to the hilt and a nice big yard, and just down the road there was [a] swimming hole, an abandoned granite quarry, where we spent many a summer day.”
As he talks about his roots and Irish history, he pulls out a book that contains 19th-century caricatures. The Irish, he says, often were depicted in those years as “simianlike, violent drunkards” and regarded “by many Protestant families as subhuman.” Their religion, Catholicism, was seen as “superstition-ridden and kind of ludicrous.”
Despised by white American Protestants just as blacks were, the Irish often took out their rage on blacks. It is a pattern Mr. Baker sees continuing in the United States as newer immigrants sometimes try to make blacks scapegoats.
Mr. Baker has just completed the research for his third novel in the trilogy, but he continues to be curious about the life of 19th-century Manhattanites.
He recently learned that the 1807 Episcopalian church directly across the street from his apartment building financed the black church in “Paradise Alley,” which was in Seneca Village, then located in what was to become Central Park.
Two of Mr. Baker’s main characters in “Paradise Alley” meet, marry at the black church and bear their first two children in Seneca Village. Billy Dove is an escaped slave; Ruth is a young Irish woman who has escaped both the Irish famine and a sociopathic lover.
Mr. Baker describes Seneca Village as “a pocket of relative racial equanimity and harmony in what was otherwise a pretty racially divided country.”
It is in Seneca Village that Billy Dove and Ruth rediscover their humanity.
As he looks at the world through a historical lens, Mr. Baker says the sight of the church across the street from his home will always make him think of Seneca Village.