Book Review: The Gilded Cage by Judy Alter

June 13, 2016 historical, Judy Alter 0

about the book

Born to a society and a life of privilege, Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, a wealthy entrepreneur who called her Cissy. Neither dreamed the direction the other’s life would take. He built the Palmer House Hotel, still famed today, and become one of the major robber barons of the city, giving generously to causes of which he approved. She put philanthropy into deeds, going into shanty neighborhoods, inviting factory girls to her home, working at Jane Addams’ settlement Hull House, supporting women’s causes.

It was a time of tremendous change and conflict in Chicago as the city struggled to put its swamp-water beginnings behind it and become a leading urban center. A time of the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riots, and the triumph of the Columbian Exposition. Potter and Cissy handled these events in diverse ways. Fascinating characters people these pages along with Potter and Cissy—Carter Harrison, frequent mayor of the city; Harry Collins, determined to be a loser; Henry Honoré, torn between loyalties to the South and North; Daniel Burnham, architect of the new Chicago—and many others.

The Gilded Cage is a fictional exploration of the lives of these people and of the Gilded Age in Chicago history.

The Gilded Cage is a wonderful recreation of early Chicago and the people who made it what it is. Central character Cissy Palmer is a three-dimensional, real, vibrant person. The Gilded Cage is fiction, but firmly based on fact—the Chicago Fire, the prisoners from the War Between the States interred in Chicago, the newcomer Potter Palmer, the explosive growth of wealth in a prairie town, deep poverty adjacent to great riches—the American experience laid bare. You don’t have to be a Chicagoan to love this book.” -Barbara D’Amato, author of Other Eyes

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GENRE: Historical Fiction
PUBLISHER: Alter Ego Publishing
RELEASE DATE: April 18, 2016
PAGES: 318

The Gilded Cage by Judy Alter takes readers on a journey through historical Chicago, from 1852 to the World’s Fair at the end of the 1800s. It follows a collection of people and personalities from various walks of life, all of whom are inter-connected in some form or fashion. Not exactly a novel and not exactly nonfiction, it’s more of an easy-to-read biography of sorts with some literary license taken on occasion.  Alter takes the history and weaves it into a loose story format that retains the feel of nonfiction in many ways but proves more engaging.

I was intrigued by The Gilded Cage as I grew up not too far from Chicago and to this day it remains one of my favorite cities. To see this side of it was both eye-opening and fascinating. For one thing, I never realized the role that Chicago played in the Civil War or how dingy and shabby it was in many ways before the Great Fire. It certainly progressed a long way in the years following that devastation. Given that I now live in Kentucky, I also enjoyed the connections to my adopted home state and the glimpses into its mood during the Civil War.

Bottom Line: The characters in The Gilded Cage will settle in your heart, and you will find yourself turning the pages to see what happens to them. Not only that, but the city of Chicago itself becomes a main character that looks considerably different than the Chicago we recognize today. I would say that, as a novel, The Gilded Cage is a bit disjointed and seems to have a difficult time deciding if it’s a story or a factual account. But if you consider it to be a storified biographical sketch of a city and its key players, it becomes a light and entertaining way to ingest history and meet historical figures with whom you may not have already been familiar.

(I received a copy of this book in exchange for only my honest review.)

My Rating: 3.5 stars / Liked it!

Reviewer’s Note: This is a book written for the general market, and as such contains some “general market” language and a couple of non-explicit “general market” situations. 

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about the author

03_Judy Alter

Judy Alter is the award winning author of fiction for adults and young adults. Other historical fiction includes Libbie, the story of Elizabeth Bacon (Mrs. George Armstrong) Custer; Jessie, the story of Jessie Benton Frémont and her explorer / miner / entrepreneur / soldier / politician husband; Cherokee Rose, a novel loosely based on the life of the first cowgirl roper to ride in Wild West shows; and Sundance, Butch and Me, the adventures of Etta Place and the Hole in the Wall Gang.

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