A funny and heart twisting tale of immigrant life in the 50s
Reviewed in the United States on 3 September 2021
I've been slowly making my way through a long list of recommended books, one of which was "The Fourteenth Goldfish". After loving that book and its sequel, "The Third Mushroom", I was eager to check out what other books the author wrote. The premise for this one sounded like a fun romp, but little did I know how much of an emotional roller coaster ride I was going to be taken on.
Set in the year 1953, eleven year old Barbara---nicknamed Penny after the Bing Crosby song "Pennies from Heaven"---is the daughter of Italian immigrants on her father's side....a father who died when she was just a baby, under mysterious circumstances that no one in the family wishes to talk about. With summer on the horizon and her favorite uncle's lucky bean in her pocket, Penny is determined to have as good a summer vacation as she can, while having to put up with her absentminded grandpa, her grandma's horrible cooking, and her overprotective mom who thinks nearly everything out there will cause her daughter to catch polio. Luckily, she's got her much more fun loving and entertaining dad's side of the family to cheer her up, including her trouble-making cousin Frankie, and her Uncle Dominic who almost played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but now lives out of his car. But between her cousin getting her in and out of trouble, the two sides of her family not talking to each other, and her mom dating the milkman, Penny's luck seems to just go from bad to worse. But after one particular horrifying incident, Penny will finally solve the mystery of what happened to her father....as well as learn how lucky she truly is to have the family she has.
The book paints a perfect picture of what it was like to grow up in the 1950s, told entirely through Penny's eyes. Even with the massive time gap, modern kids can still find many things to relate to, from wacky relatives, to dealing with bullies, to investigating schoolyard urban legends, to coping with a parent re-marrying and gaining a new step-parent they may not be too excited about. We meet a cavalcade of colorful characters that, by book's end, you'll wish you had in your own family, or may remind you of family members you already have. There's cousin Frankie, who's a regular "Dennis the Menace", but has a good heart; Pop-Pop and Me-Me, who mean well, but their age is catching up to them; Nonny, who can barely speak English, but is the most bold and brave person in the family, and a truckload of aunts and uncles who each have interesting backstories, and shower Penny with gifts at every opportunity. The most noteworthy is Uncle Dominic, who fuels her love of baseball, is always ready to help her at a moment's notice, and may be the key to figuring out what happened to her late father. The family isn't perfect by any means (no family is), but they come together when it counts.
But most importantly, the reader is shown what it was like (and arguably is still like) for early generation immigrant families to grow up and live in America. Despite being primarily aimed at a young audience, the writing doesn't pull any punches in depicting the harsh reality of what immigrants went through---Italians in particular---to integrate into the new country they called home. From having to learn English, to differing customs, to facing prejudice and suspicion from paranoid citizens who believe anyone even the slightest bit "non-American" to be an "enemy alien". It's a lesson that still rings loud even today, and the more Penny asks about the ultimate fate of her father, the more she'll realize just how much her family has truly sacrificed to give her a happy life. The world can be unfair, unjust, and downright cruel at times, but with the help of a family who show their love in different ways, the good moments are made all the more sweeter.
Included at the end of the book is the author's family photos that inspired all the characters in the story. It's a great way to conclude a funny, introspective, and at times powerful tale of life's curses and blessings, and how the death of one person can simultaneously split and unite a family. (Recommended for ages 10+ for themes of death (both human and animal) and periodic racial slurs.)