Review: The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli

Packed cover to cover with historical fact, The King of Mulberry Street should be required reading for anyone studying 1890s New York City. Nine-year-old Beniamino, or “Dom”, is a Jewish boy from Napoli. That’s right, an Italian Jew. Equipped with only a pair of new shoes, his grandmother’s proverbs, a spaghetti recipe and a love for (kosher) food, Dom is smuggled into a ship bound for America.

His mother gave him one job, one simple, not-so-easy job: Survive. And so he goes about learning the Neopolitan American way of padrones and begging and avoiding trouble. The story is strong, and the reader roots for this kid all the way through. The characters are believable, too. In fact, my only gripe about the story is the prose. So much is presented in cold fact and logic, and since the novel is written in first person I have a hard time reconciling it with what I remember being a nine-year-old.

But then again I was a privileged kid growing up in the selfish 80s. I didn’t have to worry about who would beat me up if I walked down the wrong street, and I didn’t have to bathe in a park pond or sleep in a barrel.

Overall, great book, very interesting, extremely educational, and I do recommend it for anyone interested in that time period or New York’s history.

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