The publication of a new work of historical fiction by Nancy Bilyeau is always a real treat. Her first three books, The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry, a trilogy of excellent historical mysteries set during the reign of Henry VIII, follow former novice nun Joanna Stafford as she navigates through the chaos that religious upheaval and the dissolution of the monasteries have brought to both the nation in general and her family in particular. With The Blue, Bilyeau leapt forward a couple of centuries to the 1700s and changed direction somewhat to produce a top-notch historical thriller that encompasses the oppression of women, the persecution and suspicion of religious minorities, the on-going conflict between England and France, the changing artistic landscape, and the early days of industrial espionage. Now, in Dreamland, she has moved forward once again, this time to 1911 and a dramatic summer season at Coney Island, New York.
Early on in Dreamland, Peggy Batternberg, looking back on the events of 1911, laments that she has spent her entire life being told “You’ve never had a job, Peggy, so you wouldn’t understand”. However, despite being part of that Batternberg family and so being firmly established in the upper echelon of New York society, Peggy did once have a regular job: for five months in 1911 she worked as an assistant clerk at Moonrise Bookstore, “a beacon for the select few set afire by new and contrary ideas, many of them bohemian”. She did not choose to end her employment at the bookstore, nor did her employer choose to sack her, but rather she was compelled to leave in the middle of her shift on 22 June 1911 in order to help secure her family’s interests and reputation.
While the Batternberg family en masse were incredibly wealthy, Peggy’s own branch was in a slightly more precarious position (although still far better off than 99.9% of other New Yorkers) due to her late father’s dubious business dealings and even more dubious personal life. Peggy and her younger sister and brother, seventeen-year-old Lydia and fifteen-year-old Laurence, would each receive a substantial inheritance when they turned twenty-one, which in Peggy’s case was less than a year away, but before then they and their mother were dependent on the benevolence of family members. This fact had been kept secret from them – Peggy’s uncles having concealed her father’s debts after his death – but when it came to light, their mother decided that she did not wish to be a charity case. Instead, she decided to pursue a popular strategy of the time: she sought to marry Lydia off to a wealthy man (at twenty years of age, Peggy was presumably a bit long in the tooth to be prime marriage material).
Her mother’s machinations had proved rather successful, as Lydia was now engaged to Henry Taul, the heir to a vast mining fortune, although no date for the wedding had yet been set. Getting such matters firmed up was much more important to the Batternberg family than to Henry Taul, which was why they had agreed to spend the summer at the Oriental Hotel in Brooklyn with him and his mother. The Batternbergs would not normally countenance vacationing in Brooklyn, since the once grand hotels such as the Oriental were now adjacent to Coney Island, “America’s Playground”, “Sodom by the Sea”, a decidedly downmarket area dedicated to low-brow amusements, but they were willing to do anything to keep Henry Taul happy. In the interests of keeping up appearances, it was vital that the whole family should make the trip out to Brooklyn, meaning that Peggy had to come too.
Peggy Batternberg is a great central character. Witty, brave and independent, she recognises how unusually privileged her family is, as well as what that privilege causes them to miss out on in terms of “real life”, and she seeks to make her own way in the world, despite having to mainly keep within the confines of the classism and sexism that were rife during the early 20th century. Her brief reminiscences about her experiences of working in the book store are illuminating and often rather funny, as is the contrast with how her family perceive her desire to work. The clash between the “old world” ways of the Batternbergs and New York high society and the “modern” ideas of the bohemians and writers that Peggy meets at Moonrise Bookstore demonstrates just how divided society was at the time, although things were clearly starting to change. There was a great deal of snobbery and intolerance about still. Even the Batternbergs, for all their wealth and status, would not have been able to stay at the Oriental Hotel just a few years earlier, as Jewish guests weren’t welcome. The majority of the characters seem able to overlook such prejudice and hypocrisy, but Peggy is not.
While she is loath to make the trip to Brooklyn, doing so only because she realises how important the prospective marriage is for Lydia and her mother, the summer actually proves to be a highly important one for Peggy. First, during a rare excursion without a chaperone, she ventures into the Dreamland amusement park. Being a stranger in a strange place affords Peggy the freedom she has been craving and she finds herself falling in love with a poor immigrant artist named Stefan. Being with Stefan opens her eyes to the situation of immigrants in New York and how different life is for those who are truly short of money and status. And then there are the murders. Soon after the Batternbergs arrive at the Oriental Hotel the first woman is murdered. Peggy believes that she and Stefan may have some information about the killer, but when she persuades him to accompany her to the police station to tell what they know, she receives another example of just how unfair life is for immigrants.
Realising that prejudiced police officers want to clear up the murders as quickly as possible, and that Stefan’s immigrant status renders him the perfect candidate for a frame-up, Peggy recognises that for all her supposedly modern and worldly wise ways, she has actually been very naïve. Fearful of losing what she has with Stefan and also attempting to comply with her family’s expectations, Peggy nevertheless finds herself digging deeper into the killings. She doesn’t quite go full-on amateur sleuth, but she certainly pokes about a bit and comes to realise that many of the people she knows, both family members and acquaintances, are hiding some deeply unsavoury things. There are a lot of flawed individuals in Dreamland, particularly among the male characters, which means that Peggy has to wade through plenty of intrigue and dark deeds in her quest for the truth.
Nancy Bilyeau has an academic background in history and has previously more than proved her mettle when it comes to historical fiction. In Dreamland, she has produced yet another extremely well-researched novel, with both the setting and the characters ringing true of the period. A number of the main characters, including Peggy, are based on real people, as are some of the key events. (For those who want to find out more, Bilyeau has included an interesting Author’s Note at the end of the book, which details some of the real historical events and personages that inspired Dreamland.) The New York of 1911 is brought brilliantly to life, becoming almost a character in its own right. The excitements and tensions of the time are palpable, as is the sense of suffocation that social expectations bring to some characters. Dreamland is packed with historical detail, but the book wears its research lightly. Nothing detracts from the story. Peggy’s experiences during that fateful summer appear real and compelling, and the murder mystery aspect adds another layer of interest to the story. Dreamland is a highly engaging historical mystery that is rich in period detail and peopled with characters who really come alive for the reader.
Erin Britton 5*
Dreamland by Nancy Bilyeau
Endeavour Quill 9781911445777 pbk Jan 2020