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.