CM . . .
. Volume XXIV Number 31. . . .April 13, 2018
Markham, ON: Red Deer Press, 2017.
240 pp., trade pbk., $12.95.
Jewish children-Canada-Juvenile fiction.
Robinson, Jackie, 1919-1972-Juvenile fiction.
Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.
Review by Ruth Latta.
"It's an unfortunate situation he left you in."
"But I'm gonna help you, Joey."
Great. Swell. Just what I need, help from a man who has been back and forth to prison for running a real rough gambling den...
"Thank you, sir." I try to sound sincere. Better to play it safe. I don't know if turning him down will make him mad and I don't really want to find out...
"I had a hunch you and me were the same. I can see the drive in your eyes....We're business people, you and me. We know we gotta seize opportunities, make our own way. No one's gonna hand us a bag of money for free. No one's gonna get us out of this godforsaken ghetto but us. Am I right?"
He's got my full attention now and he knows it. He stretches out his arm, pulls up his jacket sleeve to reveal a gold wristwatch, and checks the time...
"I'm gonna get to the point, kid, because I have another appointment. I've got a new business I'm working on and I need someone who's willing to roll up his shirtsleeves and take some risks. someone who knows what he wants and will do whatever it takes to get there. Is that you?"
"Yes, sir. But what about Ben?"
"Benny's a dreamer, Joey. I need a doer."
"What's the business?"
"I can't reveal those details yet but I'll let you know when the time is right. You understand?"
The word "clutch", as author Heather Camlot explains, has several meanings. One can be in the clutch, or control, of an "evil power". It can mean that you're trying hard to hold onto something. A "clutch performance" is success in a high pressure situation where the stakes are high. All of these meanings come into play in Clutch, Camlot’s first novel.
It is 1946, and 12-year-old Joey Grosser is certainly in a high pressure situation, trying to hold onto the family grocery store and make it prosper after his father's fatal heart attack. Papa has left behind "wonderful memories" and "wonderful boys", says his mother, but he was too much of a mensch with neighbours who charged groceries and never paid their tab. Grieving, angry and overwhelmed, Joey intends to run the mom-and-pop business more strictly and find new ways to make money, with the goal of moving himself, his mother and his six-year-old brother, David, out of the Montreal community east of Park Avenue and into wealthy Westmount.
Young David, a baseball fan, admires Jackie Robinson, the first "coloured" player to be signed by the Montreal Royals, and he pores over the sports pages for pictures of his hero. Joey is also a fan, but he has turned his back on fun in favour of work. As narrator/protagonist, he has a fast-paced, conversational tone which engages readers' sympathy even while they doubt the wisdom of his priorities. Two "corrective" voices reprove him for his harshness in eliminating buying on credit - his mother, and kindly Mr. Friedman. The elderly news agent reminds Joey that his arrangement with Joey's papa was to pay his bill on the first of each month, and that he has always paid on time.
The temptations offered by Mr. Wolfe (see beginning quote) create dramatic tension and suspense. The aptly-named Wolfe pops up to provide help in crises so as to make Joey feel obligated. Ben Wolfe, Joey's best friend, warns Joey not to get involved with his father. Early on, the Grossers told the Wolfe family that the boys' association was conditional on Mr. Wolfe keeping away from their sons, but with Mr. Grosser dead, Mr. Wolfe tries to get Joey into his clutches.
Although Joey, trying hard to be the man of the family, isn't looking for a father-figure, several appear. Mr. Wolfe, the father from hell, comes to a dramatic and satisfying end. A better paternal figure is the doctor from upscale Outremont who volunteers at the free clinic in Joey's neighbourhood. Dr. Richter wants Joey to make time for fun, and it is his generosity that brings about the novel's upbeat conclusion. Mr. Friedman, who tells the boys, "You are my family", is unfailingly kind. When he eventually reveals how the Holocaust has affected him, Joey realizes that, in many ways, he and his brother are fortunate.
Perhaps the author could have conveyed more about racism in the sections where Joey reads to David about the great Jackie Robinson. Each chapter starts with a baseball-related title and a quote from a sportswriter of the era that relates not only to Robinson but also to the boys' experiences in the chapter. While the Grosser boys don't face the same challenges as Robinson did, he inspires them. As Camlot said in an interview: "We tend to follow stories about our heroes and apply them to our own lives in a way that comforts, motivates, inspires - at the very least, makes us feel like we're not alone."
Overall, there is much to admire in Clutch. The author includes both a language dictionary and a baseball dictionary to explain terms that may be unfamiliar to some readers. Her depiction of "the Plateau" neighbourhood in Montreal is vivid through well-chosen detail. The reader sees that the community was poor in a material sense but rich in culture and humanity. With the exception of Mr. Wolfe, Camlot's characters are people you'd like to know. In writing Clutch, she has scored a home run.
Ruth Latta, of Ottawa, ON, admits to some hero-worship in choosing the subject of her recent historical novels, Grace and the Secret Vault and Grace in Love.
© CM Association
University of Manitoba
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