Review of the Day: The Prince of Steel Pier by Stacy Nockowitz
Reviewers. They’re just like you and me. They just read more books. I’m a reviewer myself and I respect the form, but I’m also aware of its subjectivity. There have definitely been days when I’ve read a book for kids, said to myself, “Well, that was a waste of time”, only to discover later (usually thanks to the enthusiasm of other librarians) that I was just a bit moody when I read that book the first time. Sometimes. There are just as many other times when I dig in my heels and insist that I’m right. What I’m trying to say is that I’m sympathetic to other reviewers. Even when I disagree with their opinions (I came THIS close to writing “Even when they’re wrong…”) I can respect where they’re coming from. By this point you may suspect that this is all a lead up to the fact that I’m going to take issue with a professional review I read recently. Usually such reviews don’t rankle me (unless, y’know, they’re for one of my own books) but there are always exceptions. Case in point, the new middle grade novel set in the 1970s, The Prince of Steel Pier. I’m talking about a book with gangsters, Monopoly, a misunderstood hero, young love, boardwalks, and creaming someone in the face with a pack of coins. It’s the kind of book where you get 20 pages from the end of the story and are convinced that the main character is three seconds away from “swimming with the fishes”. And yet I might not have even reviewed the book were it not for a particularly misguided Kirkus review which stated that the book “may not hold young readers’ interest, and the immersive setting could appeal more to adults old enough to remember the time and place.” People of the jury, I offer a counter-argument.
This is a book that begins with a dead body. Now you need to ask yourself one question: Will it end with one too? The dead body in question belongs to Mrs. Goldberg, found in her room at the St. Bonaventure Hotel, August 1975. Joey’s Jewish family runs it. While his brothers take Mrs. Goldberg’s casting off of her mortal shackles in their stride, Joey’s the one facedown in the toilet, throwing up. He’s the one everyone writes off as sensitive, and it just drives him nuts. Here he is with his family working the hotel for a month on the shore in Atlantic City and no one takes him seriously. No one, that is, until Joey catches the eye of Artie Bishop, a local mobster with his eyes on the big time. Artie needs a chaperone for his young teen daughter, and before Joey knows it he’s getting in deeper and deeper over his head with some seriously dangerous guys. He knows lying to his family is wrong, but when something terrible happens, that’s exactly who Joey is going to need to turn to.
So let’s tackle one of the arguments of that Kirkus review right from the start. The reviewer questioned whether or not this book would be capable of holding the attention of a young reader. Well, as you can see from my description, Nockowitz kicks off the proceedings with a corpse. Not a shabby way to start. But there’s more than just dead bodies here to keep readers reading. Joey himself tells the story in the first person and he is chock full of high emotions. You wouldn’t think a kid with this loving a family would be this angry, but the kid is just seething for a lot of this book. He’s desperate for respect, even if it comes, for a time, from a tough guy he has no connection to. This is a kid who makes some pretty terrible choices, and each time he does you feel him getting sucked a little bit more into Artie’s world. I found it infinitely readable at its scant 248 pages. But was Kirkus right in saying that this would appeal more to “adults old enough to remember the time and place”? That’s a jab at librarians and teachers. More specifically, those old enough to remember 1975 with clarity. I was born in 1978 myself, so I was coming into this pretty fresh. I did appreciate how it highlighted a time period when the world felt like it was slowly decomposing. The grime and crime of 70s Atlantic City are in full view. This is a resort town on its last legs, and you feel that, sure. But unless you’re yearning for rotting hotel ceilings and arcades with bars in their rears, what Kirkus writes off as nostalgia I call scene setting.
Whenever I finish a book for kids I file it away under a series of tabs. This one I made sure to list under “Family Stories”, since its Joey’s ties to his insufferable, impossible, very loving family that ultimately keeps him out of Artie’s grasp. But Nockowitz isn’t doing that thing where the text is just the text, subtext be damned. Throughout the book there’s this King Arthur theme, just simmering below the surface. Early on in the story Artie borrows Joey’s copy of The Once and Future King. It’s the method by which he’s able to lure Joey back into his presence with the promise of a book discussion. But when Artie does discuss the story, his take is entirely different from that of the boy’s. Artie looks at the story of King Arthur and sees a tale of failure. Here you had a king that felt that might was not right, and look what happened to him! It’s no coincidence that our own king of Steel Pier is also named “Artie”. His knights scheme against him too, though. And Camelot this is not.
The trickiest part of the book for Nockowitz had to be getting Joey from a point where he was rejecting his family in every way, to a moment when he wanted to turn that ship around. It’s an elegant bit of writing. You get some serious low points earlier in the story, and then Nockowitz takes a couple risks. She includes a scene where Joey goes to synagogue (pretty much just to escape his family) and is touched and moved by what he witnesses inside. This from a kid who’s doubting the existence of God (but never his own Jewishness) from the get-go. That the author manages to make this scene work is a minor miracle in and of itself. She has someone hand Joey a camera and through its lens he’s able to zero in on the moments in other people’s lives that have not just a small bit of importance but weight and meaning. This is all replicated in the last scene of the book. My co-worker alerted me before I finished Steel Pier that Nockowitz is particularly successful at sticking the landing. He wasn’t wrong. There are a lot of really great books out there that have no idea how to end. This book? It’s not one of them, and it ties Joey’s whole story not simply to family and place but to faith as well.
There are no zombies in this book. No superheroes. No epic romances (though there is a tiny touch of it here and there). So if you think that that’s all kids want in their books these days, you might well agree with that Kirkus reviewer about the book’s appeal. But one would be hard pressed to say that only readers with access to memories of Atlantic City just before the casinos moved in will find this book appealing. Nockowitz wraps you up tight, not simply into Joey’s world, but also his dilemmas. I’m not kidding, I honestly thought the kid would be trying out a pair of concrete sandals by the story’s end. Instead, you get an rebuttal to Artie’s claim that might is right. And you get Joey understanding that a lot of this world, like his grandparents’ hotel, is fleeting. The people that stick around are the ones you gotta fight for. And this book? It’s one worth fighting to get into the hands of kids.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from the publisher for review.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network