Lively, mysterious, melancholy and sharp as the pickles young Joe
buys from Dilly Lepkoff on the street, Brooklyn Bridge will transport
young readers to the dangerous, exhilarating and often tragic world of
turn-of-the-century New York.
It is ironic that the American invention of the Teddy Bear, symbol of compassion and comforter of countless children, inspired this historical novel of light and dark, and fortunate and unfortunate children. Young Joseph Michtom, son of bear inventor Morris Michtom, narrates the first of the novel's triadic stories. Joseph's is the story of light, luck, love, family and possibility. The second narrative, delivered via a disembodied third person, voices the histories of a band of homeless, often brutalized and damaged children who live in misery under the Brooklyn Bridge. As counterpoint to the street children's underworld of suffering and darkness a third story, told through newspaper excerpts, describes the fabulous, glittering fantasy world of the Luna Park amusement park which opened in Coney Island in 1903.
Immigrant families and Joseph's own large and appealing family populate the novel: Morris, the benevolent, generous and savvy businessman; Rose, his clever, beautiful and kind wife; Emily, Joseph's bookish younger sister, and Benjamin, a three year old whose constant companion is not just any teddy bear, but the teddy bear: the very first bear Morris Michtom ever made. Along with these, Uncle Meyer, a trio of aunts (The Queen, Aunt Beast and Aunt Mouse ), young women in need, and neighbors fill the noisy pages of Joseph's narrative. Joseph knows how each arrived from The Old Country, and what happened before they came, although there are still family secrets and sorrows. Hesse has a fine ear for accents and rhythms of speech so that Joseph sounds like a real boy, full of energy, good natured, and restless.
While the Michtom family is sometimes confusing (The Aunts have two names, sometimes three), Joseph's relationship with the family's matriarch, The Queen, also known as Tante Goldie, is Hesse's triumph. Proud, secretive, generous, and smart, The Queen reminded me of E.L. Konigsburg's marvelous and enterprising Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The Queen is Joseph's unlikely confidant and champion. It is The Queen to whom he tells of his first love; she listens, takes him seriously and gives sensible advice: "The Queen laughed. 'It's good you got that first time over with. You have a clever head on your shoulders, my nephew. Try not to lose it again over a girl. But if you have to. . . Well, just try not to."
Joseph is alone with The Queen when she dies quietly after suffering a stroke. Before the end, Joseph helps The Queen realize her dying wish to become an American citizen by administering a brief examination (What colors are in the American Flag? What happened on the Fourth of July? What three rights are granted to every American citizen?):
"'Life. . . liberty. . . pursuit of happiness.'
The Queen's left eye swam with tears.
'Congratulations, Tante! Congratulations. You're now one-hundred-percent no-questions-about-it, complete and total citizen of the United States of America.'
I bent over and wrapped my arms around her, burying my face in her neck.
'Put this. . . in writing, Joseph. . . get the box. . .under the bed.' She was taking control, giving orders. She was The Queen. I did as she commanded."
Death also visits the children under the Bridge, presaged by the appearance of a ghostly figure Hesse calls The Radiant Boy:
" . . . the Radiant Boy appears. His face white, delicate, his blond curls
as fair and fine as a girl's.
. . . the Radiant Boy brings no warmth, no hope; only despair.
No one dares get close for fear of freezing to him like a tongue to metal.
He glides. Objects float around him. His memories.
The Radiant Boy does not know he is dead."
The ponderous prose, the horror stories of cruelty and abuse, the
death-in-life Neverland of the street children, and the life-in-death of the
wraithlike Radiant Boy subvert the novel and diminish its aesthetic success.
Although Hesse connects The Radiant Boy to the living world Joseph inhabits
through a series of improbable (and puzzling) coincidences, most potent are the
sections of the novel in which Hesse devotes her great talents to realizing a
real place and a real time in history: New York 1903, its smells, its sounds,
its people. Reading about the Superbas baseball team, a deadly outbreak of the
grippe, the menagerie at Prospect Park, and of course, the stupendous Luna Park
is wonderful. So wonderful that I wonder if the street children's invisibility
and diminished lives aren't ghostly enough without the creaky narrative
machinery that conveys their stories and heralds the Radiant Boy's arrivals and
It's fortunate that Joseph feels deeply and widely and doesn't need an encounter with the The Other Side to seem complete. Hesse pushes him alone, on foot, to Coney Island where he spends a night wet and shivering. The melancholy of that evening as the lights of Luna Park glow in the distance is the melancholy of James Joyce's Araby. I wonder why the children under the bridge never cross paths with Joseph. I kept waiting for the nighttime world of the lost children to be revealed to Joseph then, for the dream to become nightmare, but instead he encounters a long lost uncle, and makes it home with the help of charity and the police.
Despite the novelistic ambition evident in the attempt to interlace narrative, ghost story and journalism, I suspect many pragmatic teachers will see Brooklyn Bridge as a jumping off point for the study of immigration in the early twentieth century, of citizenship, the history of American libraries, Teddy Roosevelt, political cartoons and their effect on history, early baseball leagues, entrepreneurship and the history of American amusement parks. All useful stuff, but the best Hesse brings us here is the story of one terrific and likeable boy and his volatile, brilliant, affectionate and always interesting family.
A video interview with Karen Hesse.
This review is from the October 15, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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