Karen Hesse has outdone herself with this one! I love her work, and The Music of Dolphins was one of my favorite read-alouds this year. Her verse novels are wonderful and Out Of The Dust is a Newbery award winner. Lately though, Hesse has been taking a break from writing novels. Her last novel was published in 2003. When I saw that there was a new Karen Hesse novel coming out this fall, I knew I had to read it, just to see what she had been up to. I did not expect the masterpiece that I encountered.
Brooklyn Bridge takes place in New York City at the turn of the century- 1903. Joseph and his family are lucky. They seem to have achieved the American Dream. You see, Joseph’s mom and dad are Russian immigrants. They were doing all right, running their candy store in Brooklyn and being part of the neighborhood. And then they saw the Teddy Roosevelt cartoon in the newspaper. That Teddy Roosevelt cartoon depicted President Roosevelt declining to shoot a baby bear on a hunting trip. Suddenly, Joseph’s life is turned upside down, thanks to his mother’s brilliant idea to make two stuffed bears inspired by the cute cub. Those bears catch on like wildfire and suddenly the family is spending every waking moment
You’d think Joseph would be happy to be entering the upper-middle class, to be achieving the American Dream his parents struggled to attain. Except that now his parents have no time for him. He spends his time watching his little brother, hanging out with his sister (who is pretty cool for a little sister), or being quality control for the burgeoning teddy bear business. It seems like his dream of visiting Coney Island will never come true.
Joseph knows he is lucky. And he is grateful. But he misses his parents. And he hates that the neighborhood kids look at him differently now that his family is making more money than average. I know it sounds like Joseph is a whiner, but his hurt and confusion ring true. I think a lot of kids will identify with his desire to have his parents around. It is all too similar to kids today who live with two working parents. And his desire to fit in with his peers without drawing attention to himself reminds me a lot of some of my students.
Interwoven throughout the chapters are shorter chapter which focus on children very different from Joseph and his family. The bridge children are the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. They live under the Brooklyn Bridge, forging a strange sort of family. They congregate there every night to try sleep and stay out of harm’s way- for some that harm is their families, for others it is the police or City of New York. Some have nowhere else to go, others have run away from horrific situations. These kids watch out for each other, share with one another, and simply try to survive from one day to the next.
For much of the book, it seems like the bridge children are only mentioned as a foil for Joseph and his family. It is not until near the end that the tragic connection between them is revealed. I was swept up in this climax and turning pages at a mad pace, trying to tie together the clues in my head before the answers were revealed. Hesse is a master storyteller
Brooklyn Bridge is another one of those books that defies conventionality. It is clearly a historical fiction novel, but it also includes dashes of magical realism and a pinch of a ghost story. This is one of the reasons I think this books skews toward a slightly older audience, probably 12 and above. The dual stories and genres that are presented might be a bit difficult for a younger reader to grasp.
Hesse also touches on some heavy topics, including a terrible scene where a Cossack brutalizes a young girl in Russia. There are also horrible beatings, violence, and there a few allusions to suicide. While none of these scenes are over the top or even particularly detailed, they are there. This would make a great read aloud for a middle school class and I can even see some high schoolers reaching for this book. It will be great for reluctant readers because the protagonist is older (14) and the story skews to an older audience. And it doesn’t preach! It’s not that heavy-handed historical fiction that kids dread reading. The story flows and the historical aspects are an integral part of the story without jumping out at the reader.
Hesse has really outdone herself with this one. Dare I say I heard the word “Newbery” whispered over and over as I turned the pages? Hmm….I just may have.