The King of Mul­ber­ry Street

Don­na Jo Napoli
  • Review
By – August 6, 2012

What a spe­cial piece of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion— move over Charles Dick­ens and Oliv­er Twist! The King of Mul­ber­ry Street deliv­ers immi­grant his­to­ry in a real­is­tic adven­ture rich in mar­velous char­ac­ters, emo­tions and morals. Despite its length, this page-turn­er will grab and hold read­ers ages 9 to 14, espe­cial­ly boys. Its hon­esty and accu­ra­cy mean the sto­ry includes cru­el­ty and death, but these are han­dled in an age-appro­pri­ate manner. 

Don­na Jo Napoli is an award-win­ning author; all her out­stand­ing skills are here. She brings a nine-year-old stow­away from his warm Jew­ish home in Naples, Italy to the mean streets of the Five Points neigh­bor­hood of New York in 1892. From Ital­ian dock to Amer­i­can city, Mamma’s part­ing gift of a pair of new shoes help pro­pel Ben­jamin- renamed-Dom to suc­cess in the new world. Read­ers absorb his­tor­i­cal details of the ille­gal ship ride, inspec­tion hur­dles at Ellis Island, filthy alleys of pover­ty-strick­en immi­grant neigh­bor­hoods, stores of friend­ly gro­cers, street cor­ners of well-to-do Wall Street and the open space of Cen­tral Park. 

All the major char­ac­ters are young chil­dren, a pack of boys mak­ing it on their own against oth­er boys and adults. Despite his youth, Dom becomes suc­cess­ful sell­ing sand­wich­es by being hon­est and gen­er­ous and using his clever Jew­ish head for busi­ness and wise invest­ment of cap­i­tal count­ed in pen­nies, nick­els and dimes. As his sit­u­a­tion and that of his friends improves, read­ers see the con­trast with the padrone sys­tem” which enslaves boys under the guise of work to pay for pas­sage. Chil­dren are held hostage for fear their sib­lings will be harmed; many are. Dom’s finan­cial suc­cess changes his emo­tion­al out­look and his dreams. Orig­i­nal­ly deter­mined to return to Naples and his moth­er, he out­grows more than his shoes when he real­izes he prefers his new life and new fam­i­ly.”

Con­tra­pun­tal emo­tions under­pin the clear, dri­ving plot. Jew­ish and Ital­ian proverbs guide Dom’s actions, instill­ing ethics in a nat­ur­al, non-didac­tic style. Mem­o­ry is an emo­tion­al fac­tor as Dom fears for­get­ting his old life while rel­ish­ing thoughts of his new one. Char­ac­ters are mul­ti-faceted; they grow on each oth­er and the read­er. Dom is rare in Jew­ish children’s lit­er­a­ture: he is ille­git­i­mate. He vac­il­lates about believ­ing his moth­er sent him away out of love, won­der­ing whose bet­ter future was the motive: mother’s or son’s? Despite hid­ing his reli­gious back­ground, Dom has a strong sense of his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, keep­ing kosher and real­iz­ing that for him Ashke­naz­ic wor­ship is a stop-gap, not for his Sephardic soul. Napoli blends friends, fears and futures bril­liant­ly. Kind adults, wary boys, vic­tim­ized chil­dren, thugs and thieves mix with redo­lent smells and sights in the poor immi­grants’ urban world. Don’t miss this mov­ing look at our roots through the lens of an Ital­ian Jew.

Ellen G. Cole, a retired librar­i­an of the Levine Library of Tem­ple Isa­iah in Los Ange­les, is a past judge of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Awards and a past chair­per­son of that com­mit­tee. She is a co-author of the AJL guide, Excel­lence in Jew­ish Children’s Lit­er­a­ture. Ellen is the recip­i­ent of two major awards for con­tri­bu­tion to Juda­ic Librar­i­an­ship, the Fan­ny Gold­stein Mer­it Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries and the Dorothy Schroed­er Award from the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. She is on the board of AJLSC.

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