'Saint Mazie' By Jami Attenberg Is An Intriguing Work Of Historical Fiction That Blends Fact and Fiction
In 1940, The New Yorker ran a profile of Mazie Phillips Gordon, an unusual figure known for helping the poor and destitute men in lower Manhattan during the Great Depression. Jami Attenberg's new novel Saint Mazie reimagines this woman in a novel that brings both Mazie and the early 20th century to life. The book is also an innovative take on historical fiction, structured not as a straight forward story of Mazie's life but as a quest to uncover Maizie.
Saint Mazie is based on the life of real life "Queen of the Bowery" Mazie Phillips Gordon but it is also about the process of uncovering the past. In the novel, decades after Mazie was a well-known figure in lower Manhattan, drinking in underground bars during Prohibition and rescuing the destitute during the Great Depression, a modern day researchers comes across Mazie's diary and begins trying to piece together a picture of Mazie's life.
In the novel, this fictional diary, which begins when Mazie was seven and spans the next 30 years of ups and downs and secrets in her unusual life, is set alongside accounts from fictional characters — people who knew Mazie, or whose ancestors did, experts on New York, and other figures to provide a glimpse into a remarkable woman's life. We follow Mazie from her childhood after being saved from her abusive home by her older sister through her rebellious teens and frustrated 20s as she grows into the woman who would go above and beyond to help the city she loved.
The novel is a fascinating mix of fact and fiction. It is based on a real person, and features many true facts, but it also structures itself as a research project, one full of fictional accounts that together tell the story not only of Mazie herself, but also of the characters Attenberg conjures to tell us about her and of the story of the unseen, fictional researcher trying to dig up more information on Mazie.
This captivating take on historical fiction makes Saint Maizie not just the story of a real and remarkable woman, but the tale of uncovering her story as well. The novel is surprisingly sparse when it comes to the thing Maizie is most well known for, helping the homeless, but despite that, the character of Maizie as a remarkable, tough, head strong, big hearted woman shines through. Saint Maizie is an intricate an innovative novel whose title character will win over readers everywhere.