Fuse #8

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Review of the Day: Water Street

For a woman who lives in Connecticut, Patricia Reilly Giff certainly seems to be single-handedly creating more quality New York historical fiction than most of the actual residents. I’ve always had a kind of touch and go relationship with Giff. On the one hand, she’s a master of children’s literature. When you want to talk about authors who will be remembered for generations and have long elaborate books written about their works, few are as clear a shoo-in as Ms. Giff. On the other hand, I’ve a low depressing-children’s-book tolerance. I loved A House of Tailors, merrily traipsed through Pictures of Hollis Woods, and found myself knee-deep in rotten potatoes with Nory Ryan’s Song. About there, however, I found I could not pick up Maggie’s Door, no matter how good everyone said it was. Were it not for unforeseen circumstances I might never have found Water Street sitting merrily on my lap, waiting to be read. So read it I did, albeit with more than a little trepidation. Sporting what I consider to be the prettiest l’il ole cover ever given to a Patricia Reilly Giff book, “Water Street” has the power to win over even the thickest of critics (re: me). Engaging and true, this is a comforting return to familiar characters sans harrowing passages and the eating of limpets.

Nory Ryan immigrated from Ireland to America. This we know. Now, however, Nory’s grown up to be a healer in Brooklyn and her daughter, Bird, is following in her footsteps. Thirteen-year-old Bird wants to learn to heal just like her mother does, but there are other things pecking at her attention. There’s the slow building of the Brooklyn Bridge that some consider a bit of late 19th century folly. And there’s that new boy, Thomas, who just moved in above Bird’s apartment. Thomas is the only son of a drunken, if kindly, lout and he immediately gravitates to both Bird and her kin. As a result he’s unofficially adopted by the family and is pulled into their problems. Bird, while visiting a harrowing bit of bloody healing, suddenly is re-examining her calling. More frightening still, her older brother Hughie is getting into bar fights and shaming the family. As Bird and Thomas begin to rely more and more on one another they grow, face difficulties head on, and embody 1875 Brooklyn at its best.

Some books feel like a pair of comfortable shoes you can just slip on. In contrast to some of Giff’s more harrowing titles, “Water Street” just feels… good. Obviously there’s a bit of violence, anguish, and pain here and there. This is old-timey Brooklyn, after all. But somehow in the midst of all this “Water Street” is never anything but a joy to read. The plots and problems of the characters tie together nicely (perhaps too nicely for some). There’s an arc to the tale, and a wonderful solution to the mystery of Hughie’s actions. And as always, Giff spots her text with tasty descriptive snippets like, “…and then there was a quick memory of that man standing at their door once, his face like an apple that had browned and lost its juice, complaining that they hadn’t paid the bill on time”.

As with any book that continues a character or family’s tale, one has to figure out whether or not reading its predecessors is a necessary step in order to appreciate the current story. Consider Patricia Reilly Giff the queen of the stand-alone narrative. Though fans of the first two Nory Ryan books will get a little more out of “Water Street” than first time fans, reading the previous titles is definitely not a prerequisite. Would that other authors could say as much.

For all its comfort and delights, “Water Street”, is probably not Giff’s best work. It’s admirable but not exceptional. Nonetheless, I’ve little doubt that for a certain segment of the greater child population out there, “Water Street” will become a favorite for years to come. Beautifully written and containing an inner dignity, this is one of more enjoyable children’s books to hit the market in 2006.

On shelves September 12th.
Be sure to check out Patricia Reilly Giff's website too.

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