A few years ago, I fell in love with a historical narrative called "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson, the extraordinary yet sinister tale of the Chicago Exposition of 1893.
Naturally, I was then drawn to another novelization about Chicago's dark past: "Sin in the Second City."
While Larson's book told a sort of true fairy tale murder mystery that brought its readers into the world of the Chicago Exposition, Karen Abbott's novel does not capture quite the same intrigue but does recount a story of the struggle between the city's - and the country's - moral convictions and its sexual culture.
At the turn of the 20th century, Minna and Ada Everleigh, two sisters with a mysterious past that was ever-changing (depending on what they wanted people to think they knew), arrived in Chicago's red-light district, the Levee, to create a style and class of brothel unlike any before.
Whereas most "houses of ill repute" at the time were no more than markets for "white slavery" — a term the religious reformers used extensively in their crusade to try and close the Levee for good — the Everleigh Club's girls were well-educated, well-fed and well-cared for, thus elevating the business to a level of legitimacy that it had never had before. The sisters became two of the most successful madams in history, but all the while battling the reformers, rival brothel owners and politicians, all who wanted to win the fight for "America's soul."
Abbott's research of this account and the various concurrent events is thorough and well-organized. She does a good job describing all the dozens of characters (all the characters are listed at the start of the book, since there are so many to follow) without bias or encouraging the reader to identify characters as "good" or "bad."
However, this book at times seemed to read like a text book rather than engaging us in a story, which Larson did so well with "White City." There are some very nice moments where Abbott steps out of her journalistic composition and gives us more personal moments between the characters — such as Minna, the more assertive Everleigh sister, breaking her ladylike demeanor to physically defend one of her girls from a rival madam — but the book goes on extensively at times about minute details of political affairs, often leaving her characters lost in the verbosity.
The author does handle the subject matter well, without being too graphic or too reserved.
It does make the reader reflect on how we view America's sexual culture now as well as back in the early 1900s, how it has evolved and how the battles of morality have changed — and how they are still the same.
Once again, while it would be tempting to take a personal view on this topic, one cannot really take sides with the residents of the Levee or those trying to drive them out — above all, this is more a narrative about business versus politics, not so much about morals versus vice.
It is also a little tricky to try and connect to any of the characters because of this; each person is more of an icon than a character, mainly due to so many people being covered in this account rather than taking time to focus and delve deeper into a select few.
For those who love historical literature and are looking for an honest retelling yet racier side of history, this is a good book to look into. However if you are not a history buff but still want a good Chicago story, I'd say "Devil in the White City" is the novel you should give a try first.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review runs every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.