Monday, October 05, 2015

Review of Donna Jo Napoli's "King of Mulberry Street"

subtitle: Homeless Children as a Literary Genre
In my opinion, there should be a new genre added to the list, called "street kids" or "homeless children". It would be a sub-genre to others, such as memoirs and true life experience, for example, Justin Reed Early's Street Child: A Memoir which I've downloaded and plan to read next, Fr. Joe Maier's Welcome to the Bangkok Slaughterhouse, whom I had the privilege of working with in Bangkok; science fiction/cyberpunk, such as my own Pepe; or current or historical fiction, such as Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, Fallen Angels: Stories of Los Gamines, and, definitely not least, Donna Jo Napoli's The King of Mulberry Street, which I've just finished reading. While accepting it as a literary genre, however, let's be careful not to romanticise it too much, remembering that these things really do happen to real children in many parts of the world.

Whether historical, futuristic or present, certain factors always remain the same. Human nature hasn't, and will probably never change. Cruel opportunists exited in Dicken's time, they exit now, and will exist in the future (judging by the way things are going). Examples include the "padrones" in Dom Napoli's late 19th century New York, where they helped children to emigrate, but kept them as slaves, working them on the streets. And what about futuristic technology? The street kids are too busy trying to keep themselves fed to worry about that, let alone afford any of it. If anything, it makes their lives worse. Street kids of all ages don't even wear shoes -- with the exception of Dom Napoli, whose mother thoughtfully bought him a pair shortly before sneaking him on board a freighter to America.

When I refer to Dom Napoli, I mean the main character of the narrative written by author Donna Jo Napoli. Dom, the character, is a nine-year-old Italian Jewish boy from Naples, and is based on what the author, Donna, imagines her own ancestor to be (who emigrated at the age of five). Like Donna's ancestor, Dom finds himself totally alone in America. He chooses the surname of Napoli because that's where he's from. He doesn't know a word of English, but he's heard that Mulberry Street is where there are people who speak Italian with the Napoli dialect. He follows a man whom he heard asking directions to Mulberry Street, until he arrives there. Maybe, he hopes, he'll find an uncle he knew to have emigrated there previously. He doesn't. Instead, he sleeps in an old barrel not far from a dead dog -- at least no one bothers him all night. But what next...?

Dom seems to be quite an intelligent and resourceful boy for his age, and he actually makes it, and becomes successful at selling sandwiches and helping out his friends. One might be tempted to think that the story isn't very realistic on this point, but it has happened before. At least the author's great-grandfather survived on his own as a five-year-old immigrant and, although the details of that are sketchy, did eventually start a similar business. One rule of writing fiction is, "Truth is stranger than fiction" – meaning that regardless of miracles that may happen in real life, fiction has to remain believable. Donna Jo Napoli, at least, kept this rule by making her main character a nine-year-old instead of a five-year-old.

In a street kid's everyday life, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome -- enough to fill up any literary genre. Life on the streets can be as dangerous as jungle warfare, or laser battles in an alien landscape. There's plenty of possible action to draw on. If anything, the writer's challenge is deciding whether he/she has made it too easy on the main character, or made life too dismal for the reader to enjoy -- I speak from experience. In reality, some people do survive a childhood like that, but in fiction there must be a balance between reality, believability, and maintaining it as a pleasant read. Remember, “truth is stranger than fiction (and must be kept so)”. On the other hand, I don't think any realistic story about homelessness can be told without relating at least one tragedy, as also happens in The King of Mulberry Street. Donna Jo Napoli has handled all these factors like a pro.

As historical fiction goes, Donna Jo also pulls it off well. Not only does she portray street life in New York, but also nineteenth century Naples – including some things one doesn't find in fiction. Back then, it was actually normal to see kids skinny-dipping in the river or seaside both in Europe and in America, as we also see from the paintings of that era, by the likes of Joaquin Sorolla Bastida and George Wesley Bellows, and the photography of Francis Sutcliffe. But one of the last things Dom's mother told him, besides things like “Watch and learn”, “Get an education” and “Simply survive”, was don't undress in front of other people. That was to hide his circumcision, which would lead to another hazard of that age – anti-Semitism. That, and keeping kosher is another of Dom's challenges in the New World. Not only is he resourceful, but his vulnerability on one hand, and his generous heart on the other, make him an endearing character.

All of it is narrated from inside Dom's head. It's in first-person past-tense, but it could have just as well have been present tense. Donna Jo puts us right there in Dom's shoes. Yes, I get it – he did have shoes.

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