CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 13 . . . . February 16, 2007
When nine-year-old Sammy Levin arrives in New York City after a long voyage from his village of Logov in Europe, he finds that America is not all that he expected. The brother and sister are quarantined on Ellis Island until Malka is given a clean bill of health. If she had not passed the health examination, they would have been sent back to Europe! Their father’s home is another disappointment. They live on the fourth floor of a tenement apartment building with no electricity. They share bathroom facilities with their neighbours. The only fresh air comes from the window which leads out to the fire escape! And Sammy has to share a room with Papa!
People are also not very friendly. At Ellis Island, Sammy is harassed by other immigrants. Sammy’s Aunt Pearl and his cousin Joshua are hopelessly conceited, and they ridicule the new immigrants relentlessly. But perhaps worst of all, Sammy has not made any friends in America. His friend Max from the ship now has to work endless hours for his new stepfather. While getting to know the neighbourhood, Sammy befriends Mr. Cohen at the Candy Store where he purchases his ice cream. For him, New York has come to be the “Ice Cream Town.”
When Sammy ventures into Orchard Street, he finds local ethnic gangs. Accidentally, he saves the day for the local gang by singing a song to get their ball back from the grumpy street vendor, Mr. Gershom. As a result, the gang leader, Hershom, invites him to become part of the local gang. Sammy sees his new gang affiliation as a chance to gain some power in his new world. Soon, he is spending a great deal of time with his new friends who are encouraging him to shoplift small items to “prove” himself. His schoolwork is also suffering. When Sammy gets caught shoplifting, his sister’s former boyfriend gives him a chance to redeem himself, and Sammy decides to turn his back on the gang.
This coming of age story gives the young reader a good sense of what it was like to grow up as an immigrant to America in the post World War I era. The problems associated with such a massive movement of people were immense. Issues of poverty, inadequate housing, prejudice, bigotry, violence and depression were all rampant in the overcrowded streets of New York City.
Rona Arato’s first novel for young children is to be applauded. Although the title is a bit misleading, the descriptions and characterizations are promising. Sammy is a character who will appeal to young readers. He has issues with his parents, his sister and his extended family. Young readers will be able to relate to his desire to fit in to his new country. It is always difficult to be the “new kid on the block.” His desire to fit in leads him to join a gang and to do things against his moral code. Gangs and their influence continue to be a major issue in our cities today!
Readers get a real sense of what it was like to live in New York City – “Ice Cream Town” – during this important historical period. Life was lived on the streets filled with vendors, shoppers, animals and children playing! But there was also a dark side. There were many lonely people like Mr. Kempel who tried to create a garden in an abandoned lot. Sammy wants to be part of the action of the streets, but he can also appreciate Mr. Kempel’s desire to create a beautiful garden. It takes Sammy a bit of time, but he finally realizes that “Roaming the streets, stealing, and skipping school does not make you an American. Working hard, being honest, and getting an education is why your father brought you here.” (p. 129)
Myra Junyk is the former Program Co-ordinator of Language Arts and Library Services at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Currently, she is working as a literacy advocate and author.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.