Heyday, one of the best historical novels of the year, has at least three things going for it.
First, strong characters. Ben Knowles, having witnessed violence at the barricades in Paris, is swept up with revolutionary ideals. Only by emigrating to America can he live those ideals. Once in New York, he’s immediately enchanted by Polly Lucking, a freethinking actress, tho she discreetly puts in one night a week at a brothel. Her brother Duff fought in the Mexican War, bearing physical and emotional scars from that conflict. Witty Timothy Scaggs tho, is Kurt Anderson’s best creation–writer, bon vivant, recently enraptured with making daguerrotypes.
Second, the book is packed with incident. Democratic revolutions swept through European capitals in 1848. The California gold rush began. Mormon settlers added to the hoards sweeping westward. Experimental utopian communities sprouted and withered throughout the midwest. The Communist Manifesto was published and Charles Darwin was about to change the way we viewed everything.
Finally, this is the kind of novel from which you can learn a great deal. Not only the historical events themselves, but characters’ attitudes toward those events give the reader a feel for the times. At 620 pages, it’s a little too long, but not much. It’s epic scope evokes T. C. Boyle, E. L. Doctorow, and even Charles Dickens.