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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

City of Orphans, written by Avi. Simon & Schuster, 2011. $7.99 ages 10 and up

"When he whips around to see who hit him, the guy who did it looks back and grins. One of Bruno's gang. Maks jumps up and searches the crowds to see if other Plug Uglies are close. He don't see none. All the same, it's scary thinking those mugs are watching and waiting to get him. Standing up just seems a way of being knocked down. Rattled, Maks tries to tell himself that being hit by that guy was just bad luck. Trouble is, he can't be sure."

Maks is one of those newspaper boys like Joey, from the previous post, who makes only eight cents a day selling newspapers on the streets of late nineteenth century New York. He and his family are Danish immigrants living life as best they can. The three oldest children work and bring as much money home as they earn. Every little bit helps. The three youngest boys are in school. It is hard to read about the wretched poverty, the worsening health of Agnes, the constant bullying behavior of a neighborhood gang who prey on the newspaper boys. At the same time, it makes for a compelling and informative read.

Willa is introduced early when she jumps to Maks' defence, and protects him from the Plug Uglies. The gang sets upon him to take his money and his remaining newspapers when she pops up, brandishing a menacing stick and forcing them to retreat. It does nothing to better the relationship between Bruno (the gang leader) and Maks. They are constantly on the lookout for the other.

As the story unfolds we learn more about the Geless family and their circumstances. One of the daughters has tuberculosis, the factory where Father and Agnes work will soon shut down operation, and Emma is accused of stealing from a room at the Waldorf where she works as a maid. She is imprisoned in the Tombs, and there seems little hope for her release as that takes money the family does not have. It is an endless struggle for them to pay rent and put food on the table for eight, now nine when they welcome the homeless Willa into their family.

The family knows Emma is innocent. How can they prove it? Maks and Willa join forces with an older, ailing detective who gives advice and finds Maks a job at the Waldorf in hopes that he can find proof of his sister's innocence. What contrasts Avi creates by letting us see the opulence of the famous hotel, in tandem with the conditions in the Tombs, the wretched conditions for the Geless family. He allows his audience (through a terrific present tense voice) to experience the sights, sounds and smells of New York society, from all sides. That well-crafted voice makes every scene real and immediate and caused me many moments of concern and disquiet.

There is so much to admire about Avi's work...evil villains, heroism, a hint of mystery, a loving family and great adventure. You will not be sorry that you sat to spend time with these wonderful characters; but, you might not get anything else done for a few hours. Isn't that the best way to spend a dreary, and cool, fall day? Once started, you won't be able to stop! So, sit back and enjoy the ride.

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