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The King of Mulberry Street

Review

The King of Mulberry Street

THE KING OF MULBERRY STREET by Donna Jo Napoli is a fascinating, at times heartbreaking, account of the adventures and ultimate success of a young Italian immigrant in the world of New York, 1882. Dom's story begins with another name, in another place, the center of his loving but desperately poor extended Jewish family in Naples. Illegitimate, his presence costs his mother the opportunity of yet another job that might put food on the family table. A few days later, Dom's mother sends her son off on a boat to America as a stowaway, an ambiguous action that fuels the rest of the story.

In America, Dom's only thought is to return to Naples. To do that, however, he needs to survive the hungry and homeless who would steal his only pair of shoes, and the ruthless patroni who would press him into service that is little better than slavery. Dom figures out quickly that the only way to survive is to acquire a band of allies: another street orphan, a patroni-controlled triangle player and a shopowner.  In essence, Napoli's book is about the act of creating family, and doing so can eventually turn a place into home.

THE KING OF MULBERRY STREET is written for children and Dom never fails to sound like a nine-year-old child. Nevertheless, this is an emotionally sophisticated book. While it takes both Dom and the reader some time to understand and accept that his mother was not left behind by mistake, but deliberately sent a child off to America on his own, Napoli never shies away from the ramifications of this act. Nor does she make the mother inherently evil --- it's clear that Dom's mother does love him, both from the early chapters of the book and from the lengths she goes to in order to give him a small measure of protection. This protection, a new pair of shoes, surfaces and resurfaces throughout the book. In fact, THE KING OF MULBERRY STREET is filled with complex and nuanced characters who make the reader care about their fate.

Napoli's prose is particularly engrossing, and her nineteenth century New York setting feels vivid and authentic. A note at the end of the novel, explaining that some of the events are based on stories told about her own grandfather, adds further poignancy to the novel. THE KING OF MULBERRY STREET is a book whose story and characters stay with you long after you've finished the last page. The lessons it contains speak to adults as well as to children, and will encourage readers to think about questions of right and wrong in the context of survival.

This is a moving and unforgettable book, and one that I highly recommend.

Reviewed by Paula Jolin on July 10, 2007

The King of Mulberry Street
by Donna Jo Napoli

  • Publication Date: July 10, 2007
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Yearling
  • ISBN-10: 0553494163
  • ISBN-13: 9780553494167