Alice's Reviews > Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott
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's review
Mar 09, 2008

it was ok
bookshelves: read-in-2008
Read in March, 2008

"I want to stress that this is a work of nonfiction; every character I describe lived and breathed, if not necessarily thrived, on the Levee's mean streets," writes author Karen Abbott in her introduction.

What immediately bothered me about the book, though, was the extent to which Karen Abbott took liberties to 'fictionalize' her non-fiction, adding window-dressing and drapery to an already rich tapestry of research material.

Take this section, for instance:

"'It's going to be difficult, at first, I know,' Minna continued. She walked slowly up and down the line, a commander instructing her troops, arms folded, heels clacking."

I found this style irritating and distracting. It made me doubt Abbott's usage of her sources. What were her sources anyway? I would have liked to hear more about them - and not just stuffed in the back in the bibliography. What source material is she relying upon? How credible is it?

THAT ASIDE, I thought the actual story Abbott had to tell about the history of Chicago's vice district was interesting - if a little disjointed. There seemed to be so many different angles to the story, and the author seemed to dab a little in all of them, without going into much depth. There was a little about the reform movement, a little about the way Big Jim / Ike Bloom / Hinky Dink Kenna greased the wheels of law enforcement, a little about the schemings of Vic Shaw, a little about the Everleigh sisters themselves. Abbott gave a little of everything, but kept me wanting to know more about everything, too.
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Comments (showing 1-3)

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message 3: by Rebecca (new) - added it

Rebecca Makkai Exactly what I was going to say. I've just started it, and I'm drawn in by the subject matter, but her confident insertion of impossible details makes me doubt her authority at every turn. I wonder if she fancies herself psychic.

Jeanine I'm about half way through and also agree with your review but would not have given it such a kind review. The history is interesting but told n what (so far) has been told in a completely disjointed manner. And the idea that this is non-fiction annoying. The phony details are a bit jarring. I wish she had made up her mind and either done an honest history or just written an historical fiction.

Christina Sampson Actually, the quote from Minna above was taken from a letter written by one of the harlots that Abbott found during her research. It was corroborated by a newspaper article describing how prostitutes lived at the time. But don't wrongly accuse the author of inserting "phony details." Literary nonfiction is legitimate craft with established parameters.

If you want to read a regurgitation of primary source material, do that. But this is a work of creative nonfiction. Before discrediting an author online, at least take the time to check the quote in the Notes and Sources or Bibliography section of the book.

Abbott writes, at great length, about her sources in the introduction to the Notes and Sources and the Acknowledgements. She also discusses her research methods at length in several interviews she did leading up to the book's publication.

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