Karen Hesse’s Brooklyn Bridge (US 2008) intriguingly alternates narratives to create a puzzle and allow readers to solve it in ways that reveal previously hidden connections and their significance. Brooklyn Bridge starts out seeming to be a certain kind of book–and continues to seem to be that for a very long time. But as it approaches its conclusion, the surfacing connections between its apparently quite separate narratives change it into quite a different book.
For a long time, the novel seems to be a charmingly nostalgic story based in real history about an immigrant Jewish family in New York in 1903. A family named Michtom did in fact begin to manufacture stuffed bears after a cartoon depicting Roosevelt being kind to a wounded bear cub appeared in the newspaper, and thus, started the teddy bear industry. In an “author’s note,” Hesse says, “Though I used the Michtom’s success story as my inspiration, this book is entirely a work of fiction” (229) and it certainly reads like one. The focus is on comic nostalgia, good feelings, and happy times despite bad things happening. The main character, a boy named Joseph, tells his story in the rhythms of a Yiddish-influenced English redolent of a long tradition of heart-warming schmaltz in the Molly Goldberg radio show style.
Joseph is convinced his life is rotten: too much family, too much time spent in the family business since the teddy bear business took off, not enough time to be by himself or to go to Coney Island, which he longs to do. His longing for Coney Island doesn’t actually become apparent for a long time–he does not mention it until the beginning of Chapter 16–but in between the preceding chapters are quotes from contemporary newspapers discussing the wonders of Luna Park, so it is certainly hinted before he says it, at least in retrospect; and that turns out to be just one of a number of ways in which the novel seems to invite retrospective rethinking from its readers in order to fit together the apparently disconnected bits of information found in its separated sections.
For some time, the novel seems to be primarily episodic. Each chapter describes something that happens to Joseph and his family that seems to be finished by the time the chapter ends–something that affects Joseph and that often teaches him something about his real feelings or about parts of his family history he was not earlier aware of. Thus, an aunt’s death reveals that she has been responsible for bringing many people from Russia to America, a fact previously unknown to her family; or Joseph finds it possible to make friends with a brain-damaged boy he’d previously been annoyed by, and thus helps expand a feeling of community and concern for others–building bridges. His parents are also constantly helping out others worse off than themselves. All of this warmheartedness is what engenders the good feelings and happy tears the novel seems to be designed to produce.
Running as a theme throughout these somewhat isolated vignettes, however, is Joseph’s ongoing complaining about what has happened to his family: how the successful bear business has taken over his free time, how constrictive family life is. Nor is that the only discordant note. Interspersed with Joseph’s first person story of his supposedly hard lot in the midst of a heart-warming life are shorter bits in italics, told from an omniscient third-person point of view, which describe a group of children, unknown to the characters in Joseph’s story, who live together not far away from Joseph’s home, under the Brooklyn Bridge, all of them victims of various kinds of abuse by their parents and other adults. Their stories almost always involve some way in which these damaged and utterly isolated children find ways to help and sustain each other, and so they read like a kind of weirdly distorted parallel to Joseph’s story, except that this is a manufactured family rather than an actual one. Furthermore, the children who take the main part in each episode of this narrative do not spend their time complaining about how repressive all the other children are.
On first glance, then, these interspersed sections seem to be there as an ironic counterpoint of Joseph’s story. He thinks he has it bad? Look at these kids who have it ever so much worse! He thinks a family is a bad idea? Look at these children who do not have one and have to make one up by themselves! It reads like a nasty trick on Joseph, a way of undermining his self-pity and confirming how wonderful and warm and happy his family actually is. As happens in many novels with alternating narratives, there is an invitation to comparison that reveals the blindness of the focalizing character in one of the narratives.
But then there is also one small, strange detail that the reading of Brooklyn Bridge I have been describing does not account for. The children under the bridge all appear to have contact with another ghostlike child, who comes to warn them every time they are threatened with death. This insertion of something fantastic or supernatural into an otherwise realistic narrative is strange, especially when the realistic narrative is a schmaltzy bad-things-happen-but-we-have-each-other kind of story where the last thing one might expect is a group of unaided homeless children and, especially, a ghost. This intrusion of the supernatural seems something like what happens in Seth Grahame Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. As I was reading, I did not understand what it had to do with anything else–but it did not seem central enough to do more than nag at me a little.
But then, very close to the end of the novel something happens in Joseph’s story that let me know I had to reconsider everything, go back and imagine how this could actually have been a quite different kind of book all along. Joseph’s family finally goes to Coney Island, as he has dreamed–this after he has walked all the way there by himself, swam in the ocean, had his clothes stolen, got very cold and hungry, and scared the wits out of his parents before the police finally bring him safely home the next day. He has now experienced something like a small but instructive version of the isolated and dangerous life the children live under the bridge. He should be able to understand now how comfortable his life really is.
But then, on the family expedition back to Coney Island again, they come upon Joseph’s supposedly dead uncle, who was supposed to have died trying unsuccessfully to save his son from drowning. Joseph’s aunt has responded to these events by hating crossing the bridge and seeing the water, refusing to leave Manhattan for Brooklyn–but due to the death of her sister, a family wedding, and other forces of change, she has done it now, and there, suddenly, is her artist husband, alive and selling portraits from a booth at Coney Island. She is furious with him, but they are both finally able to move past the past that has held them in stasis–to move on from a self-imposed rigidity.
Furthermore, it turns out that the ghost under the bridge is their son, whom his father buried there. The boy is excavated, and is allowed to leave also. Once more, there is a theme of moving on.
After many pages where the only connections are thematic ones, then, an actual connection is made between the two narratives. The central boy of one narrative is the cousin of the dead ghost in the other. Each has observed death in his group, each has helped others past pain. They mirror each other in ways that tie the narratives together thematically. Furthermore, the discovery that the ghost of one story is the dead cousin of the other story makes the two narratives curiously one, even though there is no actual contact between the characters in one with those in the other. And the connection then requires a rethinking of what happened before it became known.It especially points to ways in which Joseph’s family history is a story of people held back from moving and then finding out how to move on: his aunts who are forced to leave their secluded apartment and take new jobs when their eldest sister dies, his uncle who finds a wife, the woman the uncle marries, Joseph himself hating how the bears have taken over his family life, his brother giving up his own bear and feeling free of it, Joseph finally freeing himself of the memory of his dead cousin–all have to break down a wall that holds them in, cross a bridge and get somewhere else.The novel’s epigraph, attributed to Isaac Newton, reveals this focus: “We build too many walls and not enough bridges.”
Joseph gets to Coney island, as he wanted–but what he finds there is not the freedom he expected, but its opposite: a family connection, another bridge that ties him into the life he has with his family, another bridge of the many he must accept and learn to celebrate. All that seemed anecdotal and heart-warming is that, yes, but also, full of unresolved pain and a complex set of thematically connected events that give the novel as a whole a structure that is not only surprisingly complicated but also surprisingly meaningful, surprisingly tied in to a set of similar concerns being expressed in a variety of ways.
It is telling that, while Joseph’s dead cousin gets his freedom, there is no evidence at the end that the rest of the abandoned and lost children are not still there suffering under the bridge. Learning to understand the value of what you have, as Joseph does, does not necessarily mean that pain or suffering or hardship disappears from the world around you–or even, for that matter, from your own life. There is a toughness in this book about bridges and bridging that does not forget the disconnected bits left over unseen under the bridge–the puzzle pieces remaining after much of the puzzle has been solved.