This is one of those books that I picked up because my library patrons kept raving about it and the reserve list is quite long. It also had the added attraction of being set in Brooklyn, my birthplace and my son’s current home. When there is that much interest in a book, I like to take a look at it, and I’m very glad I did.
At its heart, it is a coming of age story but it is also a history of the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, starting in the late 1950s but with some additional historic information going back to the 1800s.
There are three main characters, four if you count Crown Heights and I certainly do. Joshua Eubanks is a young black boy whose mother is a maid for the Sims, a wealthy Jewish family on Long Island. Mr. Sims owns some apartments in Brooklyn, where he moves his maid/mistress and their son, but Joshua doesn’t know about his father. He does hear a lot about Paul Sims, his half-brother, and while they don’t know about their relationship they do know about one another.
Joshua befriends the only other black child in the building, Jerome, and as they approach adolescence, he falls in love with Jerome’s sister, Celeste. Unbeknownst to Joshua, she is having serious problems at home that have long reaching repercussions.
As Paul Sims approaches his bar mitzvah age, he is tutored by Rabbi Weissman, a Hasidic rabbi in Crown Heights. Paul falls in love with the rabbi’s daughter Rachel, but it is not meant to be. Paul’s family left their religious life behind when they Americanized their name, and are appalled that he is pursuing a more orthodox lifestyle.
Rachel makes up the last of the triumvirate. The rabbi’s daughter wants to become a doctor, but that is just not done in the Hasidic community. Women are expected to marry and produce lots of children, and not much more than that. She befriends Joshua, and their relationship has considerable influence on both their lives.
Crown Heights is the last main character, and also comes of age in this story. The community changes from Italian and Irish to African American but the Hasidim are the constant throughout, despite bigotry going in every direction and eventual race riots.
This a completely engrossing story, with well defined characters that the reader can’t help but care about. The tumultuous times add a lot of drama and action, making this a fast paced story as well. What I really liked is that the author showed both the good and the bad in all these racial and religious groups. There was no black and white, only the more realistic shades of gray.
There is a lot for book groups to discuss here, and I would highly recommend it for book discussion. I really enjoyed it, and will be thanking my patrons for recommending it.
1/15 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
JOSHUA: A Brooklyn Tale by Andrew Kane. Berwick Court Publishing (February 26, 2015). ISBN 978-0990951544. 480p.