The Gilded Cage
by Judy Alter



Alter Ego Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-0-996-01312-3.
Reviewed by Ann McCauley
Posted on 06/18/2016
Review of the Month, June 2016

Fiction: Historical

Judy Alter's The Gilded Cage is a fascinating historical novel about the early days of Chicago. Potter Palmer grew up in a small Quaker village in upstate New York, and his work ethic made him a partner in a local mercantile store before he was twenty. He opened his own store in nearby Lockport, though most of his family and neighbors had never ventured outside the borders of Potters Hollow. Potter was a careful man; he studied his choices and made a life plan. In 1852, at age twenty-six, he disembarked the train in Chicago after a grueling two-day journey from New York City; the unrelenting oppressive smell of the stockyards nearly took his breath away. But Potter determined a bad smell would not stop him.

The author's strength is in her detailed research as well as her character development. Potter, age forty-five, married wealthy society Bertha Honore; he called her 'Cissy.' She was twenty-two. Given the difference in age and attitudes of Cissy and Potter, they had a remarkably compatible marriage and two sons. While Potter planned and built a mansion for his future family, they lived in a suite of Potter's Palmer House, the grandest hotel in Chicago.

Potter, one of the city's major robber barons, gave generously to causes he approved, yet they were seldom the same causes Cissy supported. He wrote checks while Cissy delivered food, clothing and medical supplies to the shanty neighborhoods, invited factory girls to her mansion for cooking lessons, and worked at the Jane Addams' settlement Hull House, actively supporting women's causes.

Another character whose life intertwines with the protagonists throughout the novel was Carter Harrison, a frequent mayor of Chicago.

Then there was Harry Collins, whose life was a case in point of how to make the wrong choices. His wife, Sheila, provided an inside look at the struggles of the destitute. Her husband always had money for alcohol even when his family was without food.

Judy Alter created some fictional situations for these historical characters as the novel spanned a time of great change in America and especially for Chicago: The Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riots, the Columbian Exposition and the Civil War. The history of the city provided momentum to keep the story moving as the character's lives intertwined with fate and each other throughout the novel.

The Gilded Cage is one of those books that take you to another time and place, and the story and characters stay with you long after reading.


Judy Alter grew up in Chicago is an award winning author of fiction for adults and young adults. Her other historical fiction includes Libbie, Jessie, Cherokee Rose, and Sundance, Butch and Me. Though she writes historical fiction, she considers herself a storyteller, not an historian.

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