Make Me a City: A Novel

Written by Jonathan Carr
Review by Bryan Dumas

In Carr’s sweeping epic, the city of Chicago, from its humble and swampy beginnings in 1800 to the day the swamp is finally drained in 1900, is the both the main character and its plot.

Employing various “sources” (journals, letters, the fictional Chicago: An Alternative History 1800-1900, and even a review of said book) the birth and life of Chicago is told from a wide cast of historical figures, beginning with Jean Baptiste Pointe de Sable—a mulatto living in a small log cabin who is argued to be the founder of Chicago. Other historical figures whose stories help move Chicago along ebb and flow through time, including land speculator and heart-sick lover John S. Wright; Eliza Chappell, John’s first love and Chicago’s first teacher; Antje Hunter, one of the city’s first female reporters; and the man responsible for the Crib and water tunnel and for literally raising Chicago, Ellis Chesbrough. Helping to tie these various lives together are relics of the past, including a pot, a painting, and a watch. Altogether, a portrait of Chicago emerges.

With this story told through multiple vignettes and voices, readers may find it difficult to find footing, but Carr’s prose is often amusing and heartfelt (J. S. Wright’s death, for example) and pulls readers through the joys and pains of the people who made Chicago a city. There are times, however, when the writing borders on patronizing (the rough dialect of the Native Americans) and unauthentic (non-standard writing in young Antje’s diary, “geniully” and “politerly”). Readers looking for a history lesson on the rise of Chicago will come away confused and frustrated. However, if you are looking for a gritty, unapologetically unique “alternative” history of the Windy City, this is the place to start.