The King of Mulberry Street, by Donna Jo Napoli. Random House, 2005, 256 pages.
Maturity Level: 4 (Ages 10-12)
Bottom Line: In this Middle Grade novel, a 9-year-old Italian immigrant realizes the American dream in 1890s New York through a combination of luck, ingenuity, and hard work.
Except for being sharply divided from the wealthy class in his home town of Vomero, Beniamano doesn’t think his life is too bad. Jews don’t have much opportunity in Italy, his extended family is crowded into two stuffy rooms and his mother, who never married his father, has been crying a lot lately. Still, he has his friends and can always pick up a few lira doing chores at the local convent. Then comes the day his mother buys him a pair of shoes–his first ever–has him dress in his Sabbath clothes and takes him down to the port. There she puts him on a boat bound for America with a few cryptic instructions: Never undress in front of others. Watch and use your head. As soon as you can, get an education. Above all, survive. He thinks she’s going with him–stowing away in another part of the ship. But soon he realized he’s on his own and quickly forms a plan: to discard his Jewish name for a Christian one (Dominic, or Dom), and earn his passage back to Italy ASAP. Three unforeseen assets are 1) the shoes, which make his state look better than it is; 2) his resilient Jewish heritage; and 3) his own native ingenuity. By means of the former he escapes the clutches of the patrones, fellow nationals who exploit unattached children. By means of the latter he is able, after some rough living, to start a curbside sandwich business with a couple of friends and begin an amazing climb. He was made for America, and America for him: . . . bad things happen, but you don’t miss a step.
A very bad thing does happen to Gaetano, Dom’s best friend, but there’s a silver lining in his fate: speaking of his patrone, Gaetano says, “He counted on our being more afraid of freedom than of him.” Dom becomes uncannily wise–maybe too wise–for a nine-year-old, and the dialogue is often anachronistic, but this is a great story, well told. The American dream doesn’t come true for everyone, but it does for him. Through his story the reader can gain an idea of what makes capitalism work: good service, fair dealing, anticipation of needs, hard work. And the benefits do trickle down.
Cautions: Language (small amount of mild profanity), Violence (non-graphic)
Overall Value: 4 (out of 5)
- Worldview/moral value: 3.75
- Artistic value: 4
Categories: Historical fiction, Middle Grades, Multicultural, Character Values, Discussion Starter*
history, historical fiction, Reading Level: Middle Grades ages 10-12, Maturity Level ages 10-12, boys, middle grades, multicultural, immigration, work ethic, economics, the King of Mulberry Street, Donna Jo Napoli
- Literary element: What are the steps to Dom’s success?
- Thematic element: What qualities of character help Dominic succeed? How do they appear earlier in the story?
- Worldview element: