Fourteen-year-old Maks makes 8¢ profit when he sells all 40 of his The World newspapers in a day, and his family needs that money as it is hard times in 1893 Lower East Side, New York City. He’s one of the 100s of “newsies” selling papers around the city, but he’s one of the lucky ones — his family of 8 has 3 rooms in a tenement building with no water, no electricity, and no heat. Many of the newsies sleep in one of the 5 newsboys’ lodging houses, or even just outside around the back of the newspaper building. Lately, though, a tough named Bruno and his gang, the Plug Uglies, have been attacking newsies selling The World — wrecking their papers, beating them up, and stealing their money.
Maks has a close call on his way home. He would have lost everything if he hadn’t run into a filthy-looking girl named Willa who rose up from the floor of the narrow alley where Maks was trapped, and, wielding a thick stick “like a whirligig”, she beat the gang members around the head and shoulders and chased them off. Maks invites Willa home for a meal by way of thanks, and arrives to find his older sister, who works as a maid at the new Waldorf Astoria, has been arrested for stealing. So now, Maks has two problems — Bruno and his gang are after him, and he has to figure a way to get Emma out of the prison they call The Tombs.
Willa has only two things she prizes: a blue tin box and a raggedy doll named Gretchen. In her box is a picture of Willa with her mother and father. Her mother died of the wasting sickness; her father disappeared a few days later. Maks’ family takes her in as one of their own. She is determined to help them anyway they can.
Maks’ family, consisting of himself, two older sisters, three younger brothers, and his mama and papa, are immigrants from Denmark. It’s sometimes difficult for his parents to understand the ways of the new world, so Maks carries a lot of responsibility. Knowing they probably could never afford a lawyer, Maks finds a private detective named Bartleby Donck who is willing to teach Maks and Willa how to find information that might help his sister. When Donck gets Maks into the Astoria as a bellboy and he sees Willa’s father (whom he recognizes from Willa’s picture), he’s got another problem — how will he tell Willa her father’s not dead but has abandoned her!
City of Orphans is a tender but exciting story about the tough life for immigrants in NYC, a place teeming with people struggling to earn pennies, the sights, smells, and noise of tenements juxtaposed against the wealthy, the criminal elements, and a corrupt police force and justice system. Author Avi, in his note at the end of the book, talks about his research and the importance of accuracy when writing historical fiction — which he has clearly taken pains to do. He is a prolific author — more than 60 books to his credit — in a variety of genres, for children, teens, and young adults. This is a thoroughly interesting read; it made me wish I’d seen the musical “Newsies“. * * * * *