BookBrowse Reviews North River by Pete Hamill

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North River

A Novel

by Pete Hamill

North River by Pete Hamill X
North River by Pete Hamill
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2007, 352 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2008, 368 pages

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A story of honor, family, and one man's simple courage set in 1930s New York

During the 1960s and '70s Hamill was known for his hard knuckled reporting about New York, but his recent novels have been much more soft focus in nature, no more so than in his latest work. In fact, there's a touch of the Thomas Kinkades about North River. That is not to disparage it but simply to recognize it for what it is - a romantic historical novel set against an idealized backdrop of 1930s New York, where bad things happen but through a soft-focus lens of nostalgia in which the poor are hardworking and honest with hearts of gold, the gangsters have mothers and feelings, and the snow falls softly all around.

When James Delaney chose to volunteer to serve as a surgeon in World War I he left behind a baby daughter and his wife, Molly, who didn't understand his decision. When he returned, with a wounded right hand ensuring that he would never practice as a surgeon again, he found a wife who'd forgotten how to love him and a daughter who didn't remember him. Sixteen years later he's built up a practice as a family doctor but is still living with the consequences of his decision. His wife, who has been depressed for years, disappeared a year ago; and his daughter, Grace (not yet twenty), is somewhere in Central America with her Mexican husband, who thinks himself a revolutionary, and their son.

Delaney continues his good works providing medical care to all who need it in his community, irrespective of whether they can pay or who they might be, but emotionally he is frozen. All this changes in the Depression-era winter of '34 when he returns from his rounds to find Carlos, his daughter Grace's almost three-year-old son, on the doorstep with a note from Grace saying that she's on her way to Europe in the hope of finding her husband who upped and left some months before to continue his revolutionary education in Spain or Russia.

Shortly after becoming a household of two, another new arrival turns up on the doorstep of the doctor's house - Rose, a Sicilian woman recently arrived in America who is sent by a friend of Delaney to help look after Carlos. As Rose bonds with Carlos, becoming his surrogate mother, Delaney's emotional core starts to thaw and he begins to see Rose in a new light; but this picture of domestic harmony is fragile, relying as it does on the possibly temporary residence of Carlos in his house and the absence of Grace. Meanwhile, Delaney triggers a more immediate threat when he saves the life of an old army friend, now a powerful local gangster, who has been shot by a rival gang, which brings down the wrath of Frankie "Botts" and his hoods.

Will James and Rose be able to find happiness with the triple threats of Grace returning to claim her son, Molly returning to claim her husband, and Frankie "Botts" threatening to take them all out of circulation permanently? All this and more will be revealed in Hamill's slow moving but evocative novel set in 1930s Greenwich Village.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2007, and has been updated for the July 2008 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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