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Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Bandit's Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a PIckpocket, by Deborah Hopkinson. Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. 2017. $21.99 ages 10 and up

"I hope that all this talk of sausages hasn't made you as hungry as I felt right then. And even though more than anything I longed to bite into something juicy and hot to fill my empty stomach, that didn't happen. All I got that day was more trouble. I wandered for what seemed like hours, bedraggled and miserable as a chicken in a hailstorm. I even began to worry a little about Marco and Luigi."

I just finished reading this wonderful novel about late 19th century New York, the tenements, the poverty, and the adventures of a young immigrant Italian boy, Rocco Zaccaro. You want to know more about him. So, I want to share with you a summary of his story.

After a mysterious, disgraceful event in his Italian community, and with no prospects for a sunny future, Rocco is indentured to the unscrupulous and unsavory padrone and sets sail for New York. His parents will receive twenty dollars a year for his keep. As you might expect Signor Ancarola does not have the boy's best interest in mind. Instead, he keeps Rocco and a number of other young boys in slavery. They are forced into the streets every day as street musicians. They bring back one dollar a day, or they don't come home to the unbearable living conditions he provides. Beatings result when they cannot pay the total amount. They are fed little, have no protective clothing, and are often shoeless.

Rocco is 11, but he has a plan. He wants something better. To that end, he makes acquaintance with two pickpockets who see his potential and ply him with food and thoughts of wealth. It works for a while as he learns the skills needed. Soon, Rocco wants more independent work. He is caught by the police and sent to a prison for boys. He makes his escape just in time to face the famous Blizzard of 1888 that virtually shuts down New York. As his luck would have it, he meets a young Irish girl named Meddlin' Mary for her work to save the work horses that are dying in the streets from overwork and starvation.  He begins to help her father, a blacksmith, and then accompanies Danish photographer, Jacob Riis. He needs Rocco's assistance with translation as he chronicles the brutal living conditions of so many immigrants. Rocco finds a calling in trying to help the kids who are just like him.

What a history lesson this is! Deborah Hopkinson adds pertinent and enlightening back matter. It helps readers understand why she wanted to write this tale of adventure, community, adversity, and transformation to find a new and better place in a cruel world. Rocco is a feisty, bright, and optimistic narrator ... and he's funny to boot. He has heart and he has gumption; both do him well as he navigates the many changes in his life.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this wonderful review and for taking time to read my book. I had fun sharing it with students at author visits this past year. The invention of flash photography helped Jacob Riis (who appears in the book) to become a pioneering photojournalist -- and, though of course I wrote this several years ago, it seems like a good time to look back at how reporters have helped to transform society. Thank you!