There have been plenty of books written about Jewish families escaping from Western Europe and making the grueling journey to America. In homeschooling my children I have seen a definite lack in children's fiction telling the story of immigration from other Jewish communities around the world. The King of Mulberry Street is the story of Biniamino, a young boy from Napoli, who is sent to America as a stowaway on a Cargo ship. Abandoned and alone, Biniamino wants nothing more than to return home to his family. He survives in the poverty stricken area of Five Points in Manhattan only due to his wits and his ability to make, and keep, friends. At the advice of his mother he keeps his Judaism a secret and observes his religion as best as he can.
Napoli writes well and it is easy to see the world from young Biniamino's eyes. Even in the poverty of his life in Napoli he is, at heart, a happy boy who loves his family. The trauma of being sent away is something he cannot face until the end of the book and he insists that it is all a mistake. He clings to the ethical and spiritual teaching from his Nonna (grandmother) and tries as hard as he can to keep the laws of Kashrut. As the book progresses, he grows and comes to accept that his mother may have meant to send him away and where he is may just be where he wants to be.
The book is not perfect. Large swaths of the second half are spent discussing the mathematical calculations of the boys as they begin their own sandwich business - buying cheap in Five Points and selling dear on Wall Street. This does become dull after a while. Also, the end of the book has an extremely violent encounter with a Padrone. Napoli rushes through this episode when it is probably the most traumatic in the book.
However, one topic she touches on that I found very important, is how Biniamino clings to his Judaism but cannot find comfort in participating in the rituals of an Ashkenazi Synagogue. There are definite differences in Sephardic and Ashkenazi customs and Yiddish is incomprehensible to most Sephardic Jews. I wish the author had gone deeper into this but the book is enough to trigger conversation and encourage research into the differences between the traditions within Judaism.
I would not recommend this book for any child under 14. Besides the violence and abandonment of the hero, Biniaminos mother also barters her favors to a sailor in exchange for his allowing Beniamino to stowaway. If you are willing to discuss these issues it could be an excellent read for a younger child as well.
- Paperback: 245 pages
- Publisher: Yearling Books; Reprint edition (29 August 2007)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0553494163
- ISBN-13: 978-0553494167
- Product Dimensions: 13.3 x 1.5 x 19.5 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 136 g
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