Ignatious Gillard is not what he seems and neither is his building on the south side of Tompkins Square Park. His tenants don't know he's a rich fake orphan with a dream that will change their lives forever, and they don't know how much more they have in common than their address. With historical threads reaching from Texas to Saudi Arabia, Shapiro brings magic to the mundane as she weaves the past, present and future into a penetrating portrait of human nature.
When Nat was born, Eisenhower was being re-elected with Nixon as his vice president. Elvis was on the rise and Martin Luther King was leading black Americans against segregation. Fi-del Castro had landed in Cuba and on the radio you could hear “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Que Sera Sera.”
But where Nat was born, in Saudi Arabia, Elvis wasn’t on the radio and Martin Luther King didn’t matter to anyone. Th ere, Nat’s grandfather, King Saud, ineptly ruled the desert kingdom while badly managing a flood of oil money. King Saud’s father, Nat’s great-grandfather, King Abdul Azis, had been dead for three years but he was still spoken of as if he were alive.
Nat’s mother is an actual orphan who celebrates her birthday on the day she was dropped off at the orphanage in a small town in Texas where she was named Catherine Wells. She was dropped off in a blanket that had the name Wells embroidered on the tag. Of course, no one considered that a woman who drops her baby at an orphanage is not the same woman who embroiders the family name on the tags of blankets. Catherine came to the orphan-age in somebody else’s blanket with a shoestring tied around her umbilical cord and she never got adopted. Living her whole life as an orphan, she had no trouble, when the time came, sending her son Nat off into the world to pretend to be an orphan.
The sequence of events that led to the birth of Ignatious Gillard go, as yet, untold. Th e written history in this case includes the diary of one Fanny Marshal and a police report in a fi ling cabinet in a barn where a small Texas township stores old re-cords. Fanny Marshal, the director of the orphanage, wrote her best recollection of the events surrounding the disappearance of Catherine Wells in her diary and she also fi led the police report, the subject of which roused a great deal of speculation in that Texas town in the summer of 1955.
Th e police were convinced this orphan, Nat’s mother, had run away and the police report sat in a fi ling cabinet at the police station until the fi ling cabinet was moved to storage. By the next change of seasons, the whole town had forgotten about Catherine Wells except for Fanny Marshal and Fanny died still waiting for Catherine to write home.
But the written history doesn’t even tell the beginning and there are only five people in the entire world who know anything even resembling the real story of the birth of Ignatious Gillard. One of those people, King Saud’s most trusted wife, went into exile in Beirut in November of 1964 with her version of the story and she died holding a whole bag of her husband’s lies. No surprise when your husband is more commonly referred to as, “the black sheik of the family.”
Nat can’t be sure he knows the whole story, but he actually does. Except for the lusty details of his conception, his mother didn’t leave out a detail because Catherine would have given her left thumb to know how she ended up on the steps of the orphan-age. But Nat ended up with an easy life and a mother who loved him every minute of every day before she sent him off into the world to pretend to be an orphan. At the time, a secret seemed like a small price to pay.