Karen Hesse won the Newbery in 1998 for Out of the Dust, which I have not read. But I'm glad that I read her newest title, Brooklyn Bridge. Brooklyn Bridge is a historical novel, tinged with the supernatural. Realistic and dreamlike sections alternate, with that latter (at least in the ARC) printed in italics. The primary story is about Joseph Michtom, the American-born son of Russian immigrants. In 1903, Joe lives with his family in a crowded Brooklyn flat above what used to be a candy shop. Until, that is, Joe's parents struck it big by inventing the stuffed Teddy Bear (named after President Roosevelt, who declined to shoot a bear cub while on a hunting trip). Joseph is conflicted about his family's sudden success, which gives them financial security but takes up all of his parents' time. The family's new wealth also calls into question Joseph's own place as one of the neighborhood guys. All he really wants is to hang out with his friends and have his father to take him to the newly built Coney Island.
Joseph's story is interwoven with passages about a group of homeless children who spend their nights beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Hesse introduces them as:
"The unwanted, the forgotten, the lost ones. They gather under the bridge each night to sit, to talk, to sleep. They know, they know, they know that to everyone beyond the bridge, they are invisible. They pick one another's pockets. They suck on crumbs, hungry, always hungry. And always cold, even in summer with the smell of garbage gagging the air." (Page 15, ARC)
Those sections verge on poetry in prose. In other installments, the histories of the individual children are revealed, dark stories of abuse and abandonment and neglect, but sometimes of love. Casting an additional aura of foreboding over their difficult lives is the Radiant Boy, who wanders among them and "does not know he is dead." Eventually, Joseph's story intersects with that of the children.
My favorite thing about this book is Joseph's voice. Hesse is somehow able to carry off a narrative told from the perspective of a young Russian boy living in Brooklyn. She maintains a light touch (otherwise the book might be hard to read), but the occasional sentence reminds you to hear the Russian/Brooklyn accent in Joseph's voice. For example:
"Uncle Meyer is a free thinker. He, Mama, Papa, they sit around the kitchen table. Yakita, yakita. The world twists its ankle in a pothole, Uncle Meyer calls a meeting. I stick around when Uncle Meyer comes. I keep my mouth shut and my ears open, packing stuffed bears, or cutting mohair, whatever needs doing. I don't even think about slipping away when Uncle Meyer comes. You can learn a lot from grown-ups sitting around a kitchen table." (Page 6-7, ARC)
"And out I went. What? This is punishment? That I should be liberated from the chains of the shop? That I be sent outside on a summer afternoon? That I have time to myself? This kind of punishment was going to hurt me?" (Page 154, ARC)
Hesse seamlessly conveys many details about life in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. From watching the Superbas (the predecessors to the Brooklyn Dodgers) to playing stickball in the street to sitting Shivah for seven days to setting up a home library branch. But she doesn't romanticize the time period, either. Some of the characters relate terrible things that have happened to them. A neighbor boy is stuck mentally at age four, because of a beating by the Cossacks in Russia. Illnesses go around the neighborhood, and children are at risk. I think that young readers will be ok with the dark parts, however, because they're all filtered through Joseph's early adolescent perspective.
The writing in Brooklyn Bridge is beautiful and subtle. Hesse will slip in a casual reference to a musician who "makes your feet smile." She manages to pull off sentimental scenes without making them sappy. She sometimes leaves things unsaid. One of Joe's aunts is so timid that he refers to her as "Aunt Mouse." Until the day when Aunt Mouse learns to stand up for herself. And then he seamlessly slides into calling her "Aunt Lena", with no further comment. But careful readers will notice, and find such gifts sprinkled throughout the text. Hesse especially rewards book-lovers, through the character of Joe's budding librarian sister, Emily. Like this:
""Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. Little Lord Fauntleroy. Jack and the Beanstock. Sinbad the Sailor." When Emily recited the titles, they sounded like ice-cream orders at the soda fountain." (Page 143, ARC)
There's a lot to love about this book. I imagine that we'll hear more about it come ALA Award time. I would offer it to advanced middle grade readers, perhaps playing up the Teddy Bear angle for some, and the ghost angle for others. I think that adult fans of historical fiction will enjoy Brooklyn Bridge, too. Highly recommended.
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication Date: September 2, 2008
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher. Quotes are from the ARC, and should be checked against the finished book.
Other Blog Reviews: A Fuse #8 Production (this one made me add Brooklyn Bridge to my Reviews that Made Me Want the Book feature), The Reading Zone, The Book Review, Welcome to My Tweendom
Author Interviews: An interview between Karen Hesse and Jean Feiwel at Fuse #8
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.