Book Review

Book Review: Snow in August by Pete Hamill

I loved this book…right until the last 20-30 pages or so. And then I was left shaking my head, whispering, “Why? Why? Why did you just pull a Deus ex Machina, and what does it mean?”

Let me take a step back for a minute…

Snow in August is a gorgeous book. It’s the story of young Mike Devlin, an Irish kid growing up in Brooklyn in 1946.  Ebbetts Field is the promised land, kids fear a gang of toughs calls the Falcons, and World War II is still fresh in the minds of everyone. Mike lost his dad in World War II, and his tough mom works two jobs to make ends meet.

One morning, Mike awakens to a blizzard and makes his way to the Catholic church where he serves as an altar boy. The local rabbi beckons him into the synagogue to help light the worship space; because it’s the Sabbath, the rabbi cannot touch the light switches. Mike becomes the “sabbath goy”, the boy who comes to help the rabbi on the Sabbath.

The same day that Mike meets the rabbi, he and his buddies shovel snow for the local business people and earn money for their efforts. As any young boys will do, they decide to spend their money on comic books and candy bars, so they wander to Mr. G’s store.  One of the Falcons demands their money, and when Mr. G., the owner of the store intervenes, he is brutally attacked by the teenage thug. The other boys flee, but Mike is the only witness.

These two events – meeting the rabbi and witnessing the attack on Mr. G – shape Mike’s life for the next year. As he grows closer in friendship to the rabbi, he is troubled by his conscience, which demands conflicting ideals of never squealing on your friends while helping to catch the teen who beat up poor Mr. G.  While Mike doesn’t rat on the attacker  – he can’t, because of the law of the streets of Brooklyn and the unspoken code among the boys – his friends think he does. Mike must deal with losing his friends, protecting himself and his mother, and his growing friendship with the rabbi.

The book is a wonderful tale of friendship, both cross cultural and cross generational. Mike agrees to teach the rabbi English and American culture, while the rabbi agrees to teach Mike Yiddish, the common language of the Jewish people.  As Mike studies with the rabbi, he learns to appreciate learning, and vows to go to college – something no one in his neighborhood does. Most of the boys drop out of school and go to work on the docks, but Mike, thanks to the rabbi’s careful coaching, begins to love learning for its own sake.

The book is both coarse and lovely, truthful and poignant, until the very end.

And then…well, then…

SPOILER ALERT!

Okay, here’s where the book goes off the rails. There’s magic involved in the end. There’s no magic in the rest of the book, and that’s where I have a problem with the ending. It’s an honest, wonderful story of 1946 Brooklyn, of a boy coming of age in a tough neighborhood.  So far, so good.

But when the author seems to box poor Mike into a corner – he can’t tell, but he must tell, he can’t fight, but he must fight – Mike ends up conjuring the magic Golem of Prague, a story the rabbi has told him and a story that becomes real when he conjures the Golem, it snows in August, and he vanquishes the Falcons to protect himself, his mother, the rabbi and Mr. G.

Until that moment, I absolutely loved the book and wanted to run out and buy more by the author. But I couldn’t believe the turn at the end. Really? Magic?

I wouldn’t have minded it so much if magic had been woven throughout the story. I like stories like that. But to trot it out just at the end felt wrong and weird. It felt like it didn’t fit the story at all.

All in all though, Pete Hamill can write. Boy, he can write. It was a great book and I hope to read more by the author.

On a side note….I worked with Hamill’s brother, John, in Manhattan, many years ago. Another great writer who taught me so much about journalism and PR!

I bought this book at the local library book sale. The picture at the top is a link to Amazon, where I have an affiliate account. If you click the picture and buy a product, I earn a little commission, which does not add to your costs.

Snow in August: 4 out of 5 stars despite the weird ending.

 

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