Thursday, December 27, 2007

The King of Mulberry Street Celebrates Triumph Over Trial

I was planning to take a break from this blog until January, but I just can't seem to do it. Maybe it's that I can't bring myself to stop reading, even for a week. Who knows, but here I am with a review of the book I just finished - Donna Jo Napoli's wonderful young adult novel, The King of Mulberry Street.

The year is 1892, and 9-year-old Dom Napoli is sleeping in a barrel on the mean streets of New York. It's not the life he imagined for himself when he stowed away on a cargo ship bound for America. Now, his homeland of Naples, Italy, is far away and he has nothing except the clothes on his back and the brand new shoes his mother gave him before secreting him on the ship. Although he knows no English, Dom knows he must do what his mother advised: he must simply survive.

But survival on the streets is no easy feat. The filthy alleys teem with homeless children willing to commit any crime to satisfy their cruel padrones. Dom knows enough to stay away from these evil overlords, but he still has to live. Other street kids advise him to steal what he needs, but Dom can't bring himself to do it. After all, what would his Nonna think if he surrendered all the principles she strove so hard to teach him? Maybe he has to hide his Jewish roots to survive, but he will not abandon them altogether.

So, Dom does what his Jewish ancestors have always done - he pulls himself up by his bootstraps (so to speak) and gets to work. First, he hunts for a job to earn money for passage back to Italy. His search leads him to Chatham Street, where he hopes to find work in a factory. When he realizes that Italian workers make less money than anyone but the Chinese, he knows a factory job will never work; he will have to use his own ingenuity to make enough money to get home. While visiting his friend Tin Pan Alley, a beggar on Wall Street, Dom hits upon a brilliant plan. He decides to buy a long sandwich in Five Points for .25, cut it into smaller pieces and sell the portions for a quarter each on Wall Street. With the help of Tin Pan Alley (the only one who speaks enough English to hawk the food) and Gaetano (Dom's friend, also from Naples), he starts his own business. The sandwich plan works like a dream, earning Dom and his friends more money than they ever dreamed possible. Their newfound wealth brings trouble as well as prosperity - suddenly, bigger boys are stalking them, eager for the coins in their pockets; Tin Pan Alley's padrone is getting suspicious; and other kids are moving in on their turf. Still, Dom is determined not only to survive, but to spread his fortune to the other street children. His generosity - or stupidity, in Gaetano's mind - earns him the nickname "The King of Mulberry Street."

Dom soon realizes, however, that even a king can't right every wrong he sees. His determination to topple the patroni system leads him to a situation that will change his life forever. Learning the truth about his mother will also force him to face truths he'd rather not see. Will these horrors cripple the boy? Will he succomb to the gritty streets and their evil padrones? And, most important, will Dom survive to return to his beloved Italy?

I enjoyed this story about the resilient Dom, who fights to stay alive without letting his humanity die. He's a boy with whom all readers can identify, and one whom all will cheer on as he battles for survival. His story moves along swiftly, with well-developed characters and vivid settings. Although Napoli hints at the darker elements of street life (i.e. prostitution and drug addiction), the references are subtle. The only truly devastating scene in the book is when Dom confronts Tin Pan Alley's padrone. Despite these dark matters, the tone of the novel is definitely hopeful. It really celebrates triumph over trial and remaining true to yourself even in the most dire situations. You'll love this story of Dom, The King of Mulberry Street.

Grade: A

5 comments:

  1. Donna Jo Napoli is a great author I just discovered this year. Looks like I'll have to keep an eye out for this one!

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  2. I'll definitely be looking for more books by her. This one was really good.

    I forgot to mention that the story is loosely based on the experiences of Napoli's paternal grandfather who really did hit on the idea of selling sandwiches to make money when he was a child. I think that makes the story even more interesting!

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  3. I've not read anything by Napoli before, but your review of this book is so interesting that I've added it to my TBR list. Thanks!

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  4. i love this book. i am doing a book report on this book and i need to know all the characters so if someone could tell me i would appreciated.

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  5. Thanks! I love the book! I need to do a assignment on it, and this helped me very much! Thanks again!

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