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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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07/06/2008 Archived Entry: "Book review: Brooklyn Bridge"

Brooklyn Bridge
Author: Karen Hesse
Published by Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of MacMillian)
ISBN-10: 0-312-37886-6
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-37886-8
To be released in September 2008

Review by Kathryn L. Ramage

This novel, set in 1903, is based on the true-life immigrant success story of Morris and Rose Michtom, Jewish refugees from Russia, who created the stuffed toy teddy bear in honor of Teddy Roosevelt, founded the Ideal Toy Company, and made a fortune. The early days of their story are told from the point of view of their eldest son, Joseph Michtom, who isn't at all happy with how the teddy bears have changed his life. His parents are so busy with their new business that the work (and the bears) crowd out the rest of their penny candy shop. The other kids in the neighborhood treat him differently. And, above all, Joseph wants to go to the newly opened Coney Island amusement park, but his parents don't have the time to take him. This desire becomes representative of everything Joseph resents about his family's new success.

If the book were nothing more than Joseph whining about wanting to go to Coney Island, it would get tedious pretty quickly, but fortunately he also tells us about the rest of his family: the baby brother who adores the very first teddy bear made, the quiet sister who has her nose in one well-known children's book after another, the uncle, the three constantly kvetching aunts. There is one especially touching scene where one of the aunts has a stroke; she's never taken her citizenship test and wants to die as an American. Joseph gives her a pop quiz at her beside and writes up a certificate of citizenship for her. Joseph also falls in love for the first time, very briefly, with a pretty girl who comes to stay with his family. He plays stickball in the streets and interacts with the neighborhood boys and their families. All in all, it's a picture of life in Brooklyn at the turn of the last century for immigrants struggling to achieve their dreams, and the different dreams of their American-born children, that's reminiscent of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Interspersed with Joseph's narrative are vignettes about a group of children--abused and abandoned, runaway, orphaned--who make their home and form a community together underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Their story eventually connects with Joseph's in a way that I wasn't anticipating at all (I had an idea, but I was wrong).

And does Joseph get to Coney Island in the end? Well, I won't give that away.

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