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Water Street

Review

Water Street

Two-time Newbery Honor-winning author Patricia Reilly Giff (LILY'S CROSSING, PICTURES OF HOLLIS WOODS) is an impeccable writer with a trained eye for detail and a gift for infusing heart and wisdom in her stories. WATER STREET, her latest work of historical fiction and the companion to NORY RYAN'S SONG and MAGGIE'S DOOR, continues the tale of Nory Ryan and Sean Mallon's newly established life in America, following their intrepid journey from Ireland in the mid-1800s. The narrative --- this time, relayed in the alternating voices of Bird (Nory and Sean's daughter) and Thomas (the boy upstairs of the same age) --- is just as engrossing as the previous two installments, and stands as an evocative snapshot of the immigrant Irish American experience in late 1800s New York.

The story begins in 1875 in a tenement building on Water Street, Brooklyn, where the Mallons have settled into a shabby but love-filled apartment that looks out on what will soon be a finished Brooklyn Bridge. Bird, the youngest of the three Mallon children, is about to enter her last year of school (8th grade) and is training to become a healer, like her mother. She, her parents and her older siblings (Annie, who works at the box factory but makes pastries for the neighboring baker on the side; and Hughie, who once was part of the bridge's construction team but who now fights illegally in bars for money after a near-fatal bout with caisson's disease, i.e. decompression sickness) are struggling to make ends meet --- as are the upstairs tenants, the often-drunk Mr. Neary and his son, Thomas.

As the narrative progresses languidly over the span of one year, dreams are fought for, secrets are revealed and the characters mature --- each in their own way. Both Annie and Hughie suffer terribly from their day-to-day burdens --- Annie from the lack of romantic prospects and meaningful employment, and Hughie from the crippling fighting --- yet the two persevere until their respective predicaments are ultimately resolved. Bird and Thomas, both wonderfully innocent yet proudly independent as only coming-of-agers can be, work hard at their schoolwork and at discovering what their future might hold --- as individuals and as close friends. Watching over all of them, Nory, Sean and Mr. Neary strive to manage the arduous responsibility of providing a home for their families.

A beautiful and richly drawn family saga set against the volatile backdrop of an ever-expanding city landscape, WATER STREET is historical fiction at its best. Giff does a superb job of slipping in factual details for kids to sink their teeth into and discuss (i.e. the side story of the Roebling family: John Roebling, the engineer responsible for designing the Brooklyn Bridge; his predecessor and son, Washington, who also contracted caisson's disease; and Washington's wife, Emily, who ultimately took over for Washington and saw the project through to its completion). She expertly captures the feelings of hope and excitement that reverberated throughout late 19th century New York, despite the gritty and cramped living conditions, and poetically instills the Bridge with a personality all its own.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the novel is Giff's portrait of young Thomas. Whether as a writer-in-earnest, a friend-cum-guardian-angel to Bird, or as a soulful spirit in need of a functional family's love and attention, Thomas will warm readers' hearts with his steadfast devotion to all things pure and possible, despite his meager circumstances.

"Halfway down [on Water Street] was a brownstone building with a sign: TOP FLOOR VACANT...You could look down and see everything. There must be dozens of stories right in that street," Thomas writes in the first chapter of this stunning book. Dozens of stories there surely are --- and all worth reading.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on September 12, 2006

Water Street
by Patricia Reilly Giff

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2006
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
  • ISBN-10: 0385730683
  • ISBN-13: 9780385730686