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The King of Mulberry Street    by Donna Jo Napoli order for
King of Mulberry Street
by Donna Jo Napoli
Order:  USA  Can
Wendy Lamb Books, 2005 (2005)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

What can a nine-year old stowaway (his only valued possession a pair of new shoes from Mamma) accomplish from the time he boards ship in Napoli, Italy to arrival in New York City? A lot! The King of Mulberry Street tells of an Italian Jewish boy, Beniamino, whose Mamma bribes him passage as a stowaway. Assuming the name Dom Napoli, he weaves his way through Ellis Island regulators, still thinking his Mamma was also on board the ship. Finding it not so, Dom is determined to earn passage back to Napoli, even if he must stow away again.

Dom hears Italian dialects, and the words, 'That's the boat to Mulberry Street'. His hopes rise as that is the place Mamma spoke of as Napoletani, and where her friend Tonino lives. Tonino is not to be found, but Dom meets Gaetono, a street-wise kid who knows his way around Manhattan, where the Napoletani, Irish, and Chinese reside. He also meets Tin Pan Alley (Pietro), whose life is ruled by padrone, who buy passage for youngsters, then put them to work on the street begging. Grocer Grandinetti befriends Dom, giving him produce in exchange for work. The idea of a 'street sandwich business' is born in Dom's mind, and it swells in size as he cuts larger sandwiches into smaller ones, and takes Gaetono and Pietro as partners. The business adds breakfast sandwiches, and pastries, and expands to more locations. Grandinetti finds quarters for Gaetono and Dom at Signora Esposito's home in the neighborhood. They hide Pietro from his boss, but later Pietro disappears, and Dom's search for him leads to brutality and sadness.

Donna Jo Napoli bases her story in part on family history, writing in her Postscript that her maternal grandfather 'came to the United States from Calabria, Italy ... Everything I have ever heard about him makes me think he had a spirit like that of the produce vendor in this story.' This is a tale not only about building a sandwich business, remembering the homeland, and heritage. It is of a young boy, forced to grow up very fast, living by Mamma's first rule, 'Survive', and Nonna's advice that 'Loyalty is everything', and knowing the importance of a pair of new shoes. The story digs deep into the reader's mind and heart, as Dom bravely realizes that he needs to let go, and that Mamma 'sent him away to America - his home now'. Ultimately he determines to find a way to fight the whole padrone system.

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