However, life isn't all that easy for the Becker family in NYC. After staying with kind relatives, they find a small, affordable one room apartment with a shared bathroom on West 91st Street in Manhattan. His father must settle for a low-paying job a as janitor in a department store, and his mother ends up sewing decorations onto hats. Gustave begins school at Joan of Arc Junior High school, hoping the name is fortuitous for him in his new school, home and country.
School issn't too bad for Gustave, who already knows a little English, with except for his homeroom teacher, Mrs. McAdams, who believes that raising her voice at him will make Gustave understand her better. And she also decides that his name is too foreign and begins to call him Gus. He does have one African American student in his class, September Rose, but he doesn't understand why she keeps her distance. Eventually they do become friends, and face some nasty physical and verbal incidents because of it.
Gustave's English improves quickly, and he even gets an after-school job delivering laundry. He and his cousin Jean-Paul, who now lives with his mother at a relative's home in the Bronx, join a French boy scout troop run by a French priest and a French rabbi, the same rabbi who has begum preparing the two cousins for their Bar Mitzvahs. And through his friendship with September Rose, Gustave learns about the Double V campaign in which her older brother Alan and his friends are involved.
But Gustave also worries about his friend Marcel in hiding back in France. Luckily, he is able to write to his friend Nicole in Saint-Georges, France, whose father is in the French Resistance, so there is always hope that there will be good news about Marcel.
I had very mixed feelings about this novel. There is no real conflict in it, really. It is mostly about Gustave's assimilation into American life. And while that is very interesting and realistic, it isn't very exciting. In fact, the whole issue around the Double V campaign, including the demonstration staged by Alan and his friends outside a department store in Harlem that refuses to hire African Americans is actually the most exciting part of the book and, I think, it should have been a story in its own right.
On the other hand, and perhaps because my dad was an immigrant, I personally liked reading about Gustave's life in America, perhaps because it is inspired on the author's father's real experiences after arriving in this country. For sure, America isn't portrayed perfect and even Gustave faces incidents of racism and anti-Semitism, but for the most part, he does make friends and has a nice support system in his family, Boy Scouts and school. I certainly appreciate his mixed feelings about which country to give his loyalty to and how that is resolved.
Themes of friendship, family, refugees, racism, hate, and acceptance make this historical fiction novel as relevant in today's world as in 1942. It is a quiet, almost gentle novel that will give young readers a real appreciation of what their family may have lived through coming to a new, unfamiliar country, finding a place in it and giving back as productive members of society.
This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL
Did the Statue of Liberty really skate in this book? Of course not, but you'll have to read to the end to find out where the title comes from.
Gustave lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, just as Meyer's father did. His school, Joan of Arc Junior High School on West 93rd Street, is referred to in the book as a "skyscraper school" which only means that it was built up not out because of rising property values. But it is also a real school, now landmarked and on the NY Art Deco Registry. As you can see, it is an unusual school:
Gustave also spends a lot of time at the Joan of Arc statue in Riverside Park, at the end of West 93rd Street. It is also a famous landmark and you can read all about it at one of my favorite blogs, Daytonian in Manhattan (he has better photos)