Karen Hesse’s Brooklyn Bridge

Posted: December 31, 2008 in adult literature, alternating narratives, ghosts, Karen Hesse, variation

Hess, Karen.  Brooklyn Bridge.  New York: Fiewel and Friends, 2008.

This novel starts out for seeming to be a certain kind of book–and continued to seem to be that for a very long time; but as it approaches its conclusion, it suddenly changes into quite a different kind of book, in a way that makes an especially interesting use of alternating narratives.

First off, the kind of book it seems: it seems to be primarily a charmingly nostalgic story of life for an immigrant Jewish family in New York in 1903.  The family history is based in real history: a family named Michtom did in fact begin to manufacture stuffed bears after a cartoon depicting Roosevelt being kind to a wounded bear cub appeared in the newspaper, and thus, started the ongoing craze for teddy bears.  It’s hard to tell how much of what happens to the family in the book echoes the actual Michtom family history, but one way or the other, it’s told in such a way that the focus is on good feelings and happy times despite bad things happening and comic nostalgia.  Joseph, the main character, tells his story in the rhythms of the kind of Yiddishy English redolent of heartwarming traditional schmaltz–Molly Goldberg redivivus.     Joseph is convinced his life is rotten–too much family,  too much time spent in the family business since the teddy bears took off, not enough time to be by himself, or go to Coney Island, which he longs to do (his longing for Coney Island doesn’t actually become apparent for a long time–he doesn’t mention it until the beginning of Chapter 16) but in between the preceding chapters are quotes from contemporary newspapers discussing the wonders of Luna Park, so it’s sort of hinted at before it’s said, at least in retrospect–which turns out to be yet another way in which the novel demands retrospective rethinkings of its readers; more below.)

For some time, the novels seems to be primarily episodic–each chapter describes something that happens to Joseph and his family that seems to be finished by the time the chapter ends–something that affects Josephe and that often teaches him something about his real feelings or about parts of his family history he wasn’t earlier aware of.   An aunt’s death reveals that she’s been responsible for bringing many people from Russia to America, a fact previously unknown to her family; or Joseph finds it possible to make friends with a brain-damged boy he’d previously been annoyed by, and thus helps expand a feeling of community and concern for others–building bridges.  Doing that kind of thing is also a habit also of his parents, who are constantly helping out others worse off than themselves.–thus all the good feeling and happy tears the novel seems to be designed to engender.

Running as a theme throughout these somewhat isolated vignettes, however, is Joesph’s ongoing complaining about what’s happened to his family–how the wonderfully successful bear business has taken over all his free time, how constraining and constrictive family life is.  He is anything but convinced about how lucky he is.

Interspersed with Joseph’s first person story of his hard lot in life are shorter bits in italics, told from an omniscient third-person point of view, which describe a group of children, unknown to the characters in Joseph’s story, who live together not far away from Joseph’s home, under the Brooklyn Bridge–victims of various kinds of abuse by their parents and other adults.  Their stories almost always involves some way in which these damaged and utterly isolated children find ways to help and sustain each other–and so they read like a kind of weirdly distorted parallel to Joseph’s story, except that this is a manufactured family rather than an actual one, and also, the children in it don’t spend their time complaining about how repressive the others are.  On fisrt glance, then, these interspersed sections seem to be there as an ironic counterpoint of Joseph’;s story–he thinks he has it bad?  Look at these kids who have it ever so much worse!  He thinks a family is a bad idea?  Look at these kids who don’t have one and have to make one up by themselves!  It reads like a nasty trick on Joseph, a way of undermining his self-pity and confirming how wonderful and warm and happy his family actually is.

So far so good–except for one small, strange detail:  the kids under the bridge all appear to have contact with another ghostlike child who comes to warn them every time they are threatened with death.  This insertion of something fantastic or supernatural into an otherwise realistic narrative is strange–especially since the realistic narrative is the schmaltzy kind of feel- good bad-things-happen-but-we-have-each-other sort of world where the last thing you’d expect is a group of unaided homeless kids and, especially, a ghost.  Nevertheless, the point seems obvious: this life under the ridge is all that Joseph’s life isn’t.  He should stop with the complaining already and enjoy the charming nostalgia and schmaltz of it all.

But then, very close to the end, a whole different thing happens–and suddenly, I found as I was reading, I had to reconsider everything–go back and imagine how this could actually have been being a quite different kind of book all along.  What happens is that Joseph’s family finally goes to Coney Island, as he has dreamed–this after he has walked all the way there by himself, swam in the ocean, had his clothes stolen, got very cold and hungry, and scared the wits out of his parents before the police finally bring him safely home the next day; he has now experienced something like a small but instructive version of the isolated and dangerous life the kids live under the bridge.  But on the family expedition back there again, they come upon Joseph’s supposedly dead uncle–the one who was supposed to have died trying unsuccessfully to save his son from drowning.  Joseph’s aunt has responded to these events by hating crossing the bridge and seeing the water, refusing to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn–but due to the death of her sister and a family wedding and others forces of change, she’s done it now, and there, suddenly, is her artist husband, alive and selling portraits form a booth at Coney Island.   She is furious with him, but they are both finally able to move past the past that has held them in stasis–to move on from a self-imposed rigidity.  Furthermore, it turns out that the ghost under the bridge is their son, whom his father buried there.  The boy is excavated, and is allowed to leave also.  Once more, a theme of moving on.

So–after many pages where the only connections are thematic ones, an actual  connection is made between the two narratives–the central boy of one is the cousin of the dead ghost in the other.  Each has observed death in his group, each has helped others past pain–they counterpoint each other.  Furthermore, the discovery that the ghost of one story is the dead cousin of the other ties together the two narratives, make them curiously one, even though there’s no actual contact between the characters in one with those in the other.  And the connection then requires a rethinking of what happened before it became known.  It especially points to  ways in which Joseph’s family history is a story of people held back from moving and then finding out how to move on:  his aunts who are forced to leave their secluded apartment and take new jobs when their eldest sister dies, his uncle who finds a wife, the woman the uncle marries, Joseph himself hating how the bears have taken over his family life, his brother giving up his own bear and feeling free of it, Joseph finally freeing himself of the memory of his dead cousin–all have to break down a wall that holds them in, cross a bridge and get somewhere else (the novel’s epigraph, from Isaac Newton:  “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”  Joseph gets to Coney island, as he wanted–but what he finds there isn’t the freedom he expected, but it’s opposite, a family connection, another bridge that ties him into the life he has with his family–another bridge of the many he must accept and learn to celbrate. All that seemed anecdotal and heartwarming is that, yes, but also, full of unresolved pain and a complex set of thematically connected events that give the novel as a whole a structure that’s not only surprisingly complicated but also surprisingly meaningful, surprisingly tied in to a set of similar concerns being expressed in a variety of ways.

It’s telling that, while Joseph’s dead cousin gets his freedom, there’s no evidence at the end that the rest of the abandoned and lost children aren’t still there suffering under the bridge.   Learning to understand the value of what you’ve got, as Joseph does, doesn’t necessarily mean that pain or suffering or hardship disappears from the world around you–or even, for that matter, from your own life.  there’s an admirable toughness and honesty in this book about bridges and bridging that doesn’t forget the disconnected bits left over unseen under the bridge.

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