The novel weaves together the storylines of a colorful and sharply drawn set of characters into a rowdy narrative set against the backdrop of a Rondout waterfront bursting with commerce and rife with crime in 1864 as the Civil War approaches its bloody denouement. The Rondout which emerges in Red Rain is a microcosm of urban America in the midst of the second industrial revolution.
“I wanted to do a story about the Civil War, but one that was actually removed from the war,” said Murkoff, a former TV screenwriter who settled in Stone Ridge a decade ago in a 18th-century farmhouse flanked by a small creek and an enormous Dutch-style barn. “Rondout was the perfect setting, it was a lively town. There was all this activity, it was like New York City.”
During the four years he spent writing Red Rain, Murkoff spent whole days in the Kingston Library poring over old copies of The Rondout Courier and an 1865 city directory to get a feel for life in what was then the Hudson River’s pre-eminent port town. The town he discovered was a port alive with industry and shipping. It was a place where bargemen guided enormous piles of coal off Delaware & Hudson Canal boats while giant schooners loaded up on bluestone to feed Manhattan’s building frenzy. Ashore, bars and brothels studded the tightly packed streets of ethnic enclaves with names like New Dublin and Germantown and a gang of Nativist toughs called the Bumble Bees clashed with their Irish counterparts for supremacy on the docks. Murkoff said that he was drawn to Rondout, in part, by the fact that much of its physical structure remains today as it was in 1864.
“On the Rondout, if you squint hard enough you can almost see what it was like in the 1860s,” said Murkoff. “The Strand is still the Strand, the creek still flows into the river.”
Other days, Murkoff hiked the Shawungunks near the Mohonk Preserve seeking out traces of the thriving community of small farmers that existed there in the 19th century. Murkoff was searching for evidence of a community of mixed race farmers at a place known as Eagle’s Nest. Thwarted in his efforts, he turned to the Ramapo Indians of northern New Jersey as the inspiration for the fictional “Jug Hill” community of mixed race farmers which he features in Red Rain.
A diverse cast
For all of Murkoff’s research into the streets, shops and saloons of 1864 Rondout, it is the characters which bring the landscape to life.
The characters in Red Rain are a diverse cast of do-gooders, bad guys and regular people caught in the middle — some sharp-witted and some chronically hapless. They also illustrate the class structures and ethnic divisions of the Rondout melting pot. “The characters really lead you,” said Murkoff. “I love developing characters, you let them go and they’ll take you through the story.”
Murkoff’s protagonist, Will Harp, is a physician from a long and distinguished line of soldiers who has returned to the family farm in the Clove from a long and violent sojourn on the Western frontier where the Civil War rages in relative obscurity. Mickey Blessing, a refugee from the Irish famine of 1847, works as an enforcer for a ruthless land speculator with visions of a grand hotel high in the Shawungunks. His sister Jane is awaiting news of her husband, who’s gone missing on the battlefields of Virginia while fighting with the Ulster Volunteers. Teenage pickpockets, war widows and a gay portrait photographer and sometime-pornographer round out Murkoff’s overview of mid-19th century Rondout society.
While Murkoff’s characters pursue schemes and fight battles far removed from the bloodbath in the South, the war permeates nearly every aspect of the Rondout portrayed in Red Rain. In Murkoff’s tale, as in real life, many Rondout men are away fighting with the Ulster Volunteers, a regiment raised in the county which saw heavy fighting with the Army of the Potomac. Murkoff describes the reverberations of the war in the Hudson River town, from the small contingent of elderly “Dragoons” who wait on the docks to greet returning soldiers to the walls of the local photo studio hung with portraits of men who have gone to off to war and a much smaller number who have come back. Set in the last full year of the war, and the bloodiest, the characters in Red Rain can see the end in sight and, in the case of land speculator Harry Grieves, are preparing to make a fortune off of the coming peace.
“The newspaper articles from that time are really fascinating,” said Murkoff. “There was this feeling that the war was coming to an end and these glorious battles are being won by the North,” said Murkoff. “And every week in the Rondout Courier you hear about people coming home.”
Murkoff’s book, which was published by Alfred A. Knopf in July to good reviews and strong sales, has drawn the attention of local history buffs. The Friends of Historic Kingston invited the author to read from Red Rain and discuss his insights into Rondout history at a special event on Saturday, Dec. 4 from 1-4 p.m. at the FOHK Museum at 63 Main Street. FOHK board member Ward Mintz said that books like Red Rain which carry readers back to Kingston’s past give a boost to efforts by preservationists to save the city’s history and introduce it to a wider audience.
“The fact that he has written a book that brings Rondout alive is fantastic,” said Mintz. “There’s no better way to get people to a place in history than telling stories.”
Murkoff, meanwhile, said that Kingston history buffs should keep in mind the “fiction” in historical fiction.
“I’m always waiting for that critic who says ‘that’s not true, there was no house there, that’s not what happened,’” said Murkoff. “I have to keep reminding people that this is fiction so you do have that license. You just don’t use it to the point that it becomes unimaginable.”