CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 21. . . .February 5, 2010.
Mrs. Kaputnik’s Pool Hall and Matzo Ball Emporium.
Rona Arato. Illustrated by Linda Hendry.
Toronto, ON: Tundra Books, 2010.
188 pp., pbk., $11.99.
Grades 3-6 / Ages 8-11.
Review by Todd Kyle.
”Oy”. Mrs. Kapustin clapped a hand to her forehead. “If she keeps talking like that, we are finished, KAPUT!” They were now at the front of their line.
“Speak up. I can’t hear you with all this noise. Is that your name? Kaput?” the translator asked.
“Nicht.” She shook her head.
“Kaput nicht.” The inspector wrote something on a piece of paper. “Now, Mrs. Kaputnik, do you have anyone waiting for you in America?”
Ten-year-old Shoshi Kapustin, her mother, and her eight-year-old brother Moshe arrive in New York in 1898, fleeing pogroms in Russia, accompanied by Snigger the dragon, and hoping to find their father who preceded them to the New World and promptly vanished. Finding themselves proprietors of their uncle’s failing restaurant, they use their rock-hard matzo balls and Snigger’s antics to attract a gaming crowd, only to fall victim to local gangster Nick the Stick’s protection racket. With the help of investigator Aloysius P. Thornswaddle, they are able to defeat Nick by uncovering his many crimes, including fixing baseball games using magic bats made by Nick’s master-carver prisoner who is none other than the children’s father.
Framed by real historical events, from the tragic to the inspiring, this story steers a fantastical and farcical course. The setting of New York at the turn of the last century is the subject of numerous fun plays on names, from the Yoinkles baseball team to the hilarious – and very realistic – change of the family name at Ellis Island. The plot steers an improbable but fun roller-coaster of events and features all manner of zany characters, notably the always-suspicious Mrs Finklestein and the sympathetic sailor known only as Salty. Over all of this is laid a warm Yiddish culture that muddles through adversity with strength, and a fairly effective matter-of-fact writing style.
But with a plot this convoluted, there are bound to be moments where the reader is lost amid all the crazy details. This is no more true than at the end where the unraveling of all the plots and counter-plots proves to be less satisfying than hoped. Some important questions are left unanswered, such as why the dragon was entrusted to the Kapustins by the mysterious Count Vladimeer (who later turns out to be another investigator), and how Mr. Kapustin became Nick’s prisoner for five years based only on the lie that Nick had killed the rest of the family. In the end, the story seems like a thin slice of adventurous possibility stretched out into a whole sheet of matzo, and the delightful warmth, humour, and survival allegory a little lost in all the mishigas.
Recommended with reservations.
Todd Kyle is a public library manager in Mississauga, ON, who has served on the jury of several children’s literature awards in both official languages.
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