Study Guide

Brooklyn Bridge

by Karen Hesse

Brooklyn Bridge Summary

Chapter Summaries

Chapters 1-2 Summary

Editor's Note: In Brooklyn Bridge, the author tells two stories simultaneously. The main story, presented in the text with regular font, is about Joseph Michtom and his immigrant family who live in Brooklyn. The italicized sections recount the story of a group of unwanted children who live under the Brooklyn Bridge during the same period. The author interweaves the two story lines exactly as summarized here. At the end of the novel, the connection between the two becomes clear.

Chapter 1

The other kids in the neighborhood think that fourteen-year-old Joseph Michtom is lucky, but he is not sure that he agrees. It is July 1903, and the Michtom family is thriving financially; after having been in America for only sixteen years, Papa and Mama have established an innovative business manufacturing stuffed bears. Joseph acknowledges that he is indeed fortunate, but sometimes he longs for the days when Papa simply ran the candy shop and novelty store located below the family's crowded flat in Brooklyn, New York. Papa had time to spend with Joseph and his "kid sister" Emily, Mama, and little Benjamin then, even as he struggled to eke out a living for them all.

The Michtoms come from Russia. All Papa has left of his family are three sisters: Golda, whom the children call "The Queen" because of her take-charge manner; disagreeable Zelda, whom they think of as "Aunt Beast"; and quiet, unassuming Lena, whom they have nicknamed "Aunt Mouse." The sisters live over the bridge in Manhattan and rarely cross over to visit in the comparatively lower-class environs of Brooklyn. In contrast, Mama's brother, Uncle Meyer, lives only seven blocks away from the Michtoms and is "over at [their] place all the time." Thirty years old and unmarried, Uncle Meyer is a "free-thinker" in social and political matters, as are Emily and Mama.

It was Mama, five...

(The entire section is 712 words.)

Chapters 3-4 Summary

Chapter 3

Emily overhears Mama and Papa talking about Pauline Unger one evening and promptly relays the woman's story to Joseph. Pauline, who is nineteen and already has a college degree, had been sent to visit her parents' homeland, Russia, upon her graduation. There, she had fallen in love with a man and had become engaged to him. The man is coming to America now, to marry Pauline at the end of the week.

Pauline, however, is no longer sure if she wants to marry her Russian. Uncle Meyer has sent her to Mama for advice and a place to stay where she might have some time to think. When Joseph hears her story, his love for Pauline fades. She is not "exotic and mysterious" as his youthful heart had imagined; she is "just another girl."

Max and Karl came together from Russia with their mothers, while their fathers stayed behind to finish up some business in their homeland. Karl's mother died soon after their arrival in America, so Max's mother took him in. In an effort to help pay the rent and put food on the table, the boys broke into a house and stole some money. When they presented Max's mother with their offering of cash, however, she raged at them for their delinquency, driving them both away. The boys wandered awhile, trying to stay clear of the authorities. They finally found a home where they could stay together, under the bridge.

Chapter 4

Aunt Golda was the first in Papa's family to come to America. Once here, she saved "every penny" she earned and brought her siblings over too, one by one. The Queen works at a factory in the Bronx and resides alone in a small room on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Her two younger sisters, Aunt Beast and Aunt Mouse, live together in a flat on Henry Street; although both of these women have passed their citizenship tests while their older sibling and mentor has not, neither of them takes advantage of the many...

(The entire section is 775 words.)

Chapters 5-6 Summary

Chapter 5

Aunt Golda is stricken with apoplexy, and the family gathers by her bedside. The Queen sends them all away, however; she has something she needs to discuss with Joseph alone. Aunt Golda's only regret in life is that she never became a citizen in her adopted homeland. The dying woman wants her nephew to ask her the questions a citizen should know, so that she can die an American.

Sensing that his beloved aunt has very little time left, Joseph improvises, querying her about the American flag and the presidents. One last question, about the three rights everyone has in this country, is the most difficult, but The Queen knows the answer because it is the reason she came here, for "life...liberty...pursuit of happiness." Having passed the test, The Queen instructs Joseph to craft a document verifying her citizenship. While Joseph carefully works with paper and ink, Tante Golda dies.

The family reconvenes in the room to pay their respects to their departed relative. Aunt Mouse weeps silently, but Aunt Beast, after lamenting The Queen's departure, callously inquires if she left any money. Papa examines a box, which contains Aunt Golda's important papers. Included inside are Joseph's homemade citizenship document and receipts showing that even after she had rescued her family, The Queen had continued to bring people out of Russia, and over to America, until the day she died.

Chapter 6

In keeping with tradition, the Michtom family sits shiva for Aunt Golda for seven days. The Queen, who had helped so many people during her lifetime, is much beloved, and dozens of mourners come to pay their respects. Pauline Unger, who has married her Russian after all, is among these, as is Mr. Moscowitz, The Queen's boss at the factory. Lizzie Kaplan, the real estate professional, comes every night; it turns out that she had been one of the first refugees brought over from Russia...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Chapters 7-8 Summary

Chapter 7

Benjamin contracts a severe case of influenza; the little boy runs a high fever which will not abate, and he is wracked by "an evil cough." The family thinks he should go to the hospital, but Mama, who has a deep distrust of such places, refuses. Miss Weil, a nurse who works at the school, comes to the house to examine Benjamin, and she recommends that he should indeed be hospitalized. Still, Mama is adamant in her opposition, so she hires Miss Weil to help her care for Benjamin at home.

Benjamin's condition does not improve, and Joseph is afraid that his little brother is going to die. In an effort to calm his nephew's fear, Uncle Meyer takes Joseph to a secret, quiet grotto in Prospect Park, where he often goes himself to find peace. Joseph does experience a measure of comfort there, but on his way home, he learns that a neighbor, Dilly Lepkoff, has a sick baby, too. A sense of dread overcomes Joseph again, and he is convinced that before the week is over, there will be a funeral on his block.

Joseph stops at the candy store and tells his father that Dilly's baby is in the hospital. Knowing that the Lepkoff family will be suffering financially, Papa sends Joseph over to their flat with some butterscotch and some money. Joseph is happy to discover that the Lepkoff baby is actually home from the hospital and is doing much better. At home though, despite Mama's tender care and determined optimism, Benjamin is still a very sick boy.

Dickie Tidwell used to live in the servants' quarters of a fine house near Prospect Park with his father, who is a hoodlum and a thief. After a botched robbery attempt one day, the degenerate man went into a rage and beat his son mercilessly, but Dickie did not die. Battered and broken, the boy managed to stagger through the streets until he found the children under the bridge. There, wordlessly, he took shelter and nursed his wounds until his body...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Chapters 9-10 Summary

Chapter 9

Aunt Beast and Aunt Mouse do not adjust well to being landowners. At a family meeting about a month after Tante Golda's death, Aunt Mouse (Lena) announces that she is going away. She has been hired by the Jewish Removal Society to travel around the country in search of places where Jews who have emigrated from Europe can settle and be welcomed. Quiet Lena reveals that she has always wanted to travel, and more importantly, her new job will allow her to continue the work that Tante Golda, The Queen, had begun in helping Jews find new homes in America.

Lena wants to sell her apartment house to her sister Zelda, Aunt Beast. At first, Zelda is resistant to the idea, but when Lizzie...

(The entire section is 796 words.)

Chapters 11-12 Summary

Chapter 11

The Rostowsky family lives on Hancock Street in Brooklyn. Everyone in the neighborhood knows their story. They had been attacked in their village in Russia a decade ago, and their oldest son, Samuel, had been killed. Their younger son, Jacob, had been four at the time; his head had been bashed in by the butt of a rifle. Although he had survived, the boy had suffered severe, irreversible brain damage. Jacob, who had been a normal, smart child before the attack, is now unable to learn like the other students in school. His memory and coordination are grossly impaired, and he just "never learned how to act right" in social situations.

Jacob watches from his window as the boys in the...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

Chapters 13-14 Summary

Chapter 13

As it turns out, Joseph ends up getting his wish for a Superbas game well worth the experience of attending it. The day starts off inauspiciously when he arrives at the Rostowskys house to find that Jacob is sick. Jacob announces, without preamble, that he "threw up," but Mrs. Rostowsky, after feeling her son's forehead, concludes that his illness is due to excitement. Joseph commiserates, telling Jacob gently, "getting excited can make you sick all right, Jake."

On the trolley ride to the baseball field, Jacob and Joseph have to stand, holding the straps, because the vehicle is so crowded. Jacob calls out that he feels sick again, and the people at his end of the trolley seem to...

(The entire section is 791 words.)

Chapters 15-16 Summary

Chapter 15

Now that Papa is putting all his effort toward the toy bear business, the candy store below the family's flat is closed. One night at dinner, Emily asks if she can use the front window of the store for her own project, as the city has approved her application to run a library from home. Under this program, small collections of books are placed in private homes for neighborhood children to borrow. These small operations are run as a public service by students who, like Emily, love books and want to share their passion with others.

Papa at first says that he needs the storefront window, but Mama talks to him and gets him to change his mind. The whole family helps Emily clean and...

(The entire section is 779 words.)

Chapters 17-18 Summary

Chapter 17

Joseph stands in the water for a long time. When he emerges, he returns to the place where he had left his clothes but finds they are no longer there. Meticulously, he scours the sand, searching for his shirt, pants, shoes, socks, and cap. Finally, he is forced to admit that his things are gone; he is stranded there on the beach, wearing only his soaked underwear.

Radiant Boy comes every night, ignoring the other children under the bridge and gazing only at May. After five nights, May runs away; she races through the streets, directly into the arms of a police officer. Suddenly seized with an overwhelming pain, she collapses. Something is festering inside of her, something...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Chapters 19-20 Summary

Chapter 19

Joseph returns home. Mama, whose eyes are nearly swollen shut from crying, responds with a combination of relief and fury. When the policeman tells her that her son walked all the way to Coney Island, she is overcome with a sense of amazement and disbelief and sends him to his room. Exhausted, Joseph just wants to sleep, but Emily comes in, wanting to talk. She tells him that she missed him and that Mama and Papa had thought they would never see him again. Emily had overheard their parents in their grief repeat cryptically, over and over, that Joseph's disappearance was "like Stephen all over again."

Emily does not know who Stephen is, but Joseph remembers. He has been wanting for...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Chapters 21-22 Summary

Chapter 21

Benjamin comes back from playing and squeezes himself upon the bench next to the policeman, who is holding Estelle on his lap. The little boy reaches out to touch his bear, and Estelle happily shares it with him. The two children play quietly together, until the officer breaks the spell by announcing that it is time to get back. He gently tells Estelle that she must return the stuffed toy to Benjamin; the little girl holds the bear tightly for a few moments, then kisses it on the tip of its nose, and hands it to its rightful owner. 

With Estelle clinging tightly to his neck, the policeman rises, expresses his thanks to the Michtom children, and walks away. Benjamin climbs up into...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Chapters 23-24 Summary

Chapter 23

The wedding guests all ride the trolley down to Coney Island, where Papa magnanimously pays their admission and treats them to dinner. Afterwards, the party heads over to enjoy the attractions, beginning with the renowned "Trip to the Moon." While everyone is waiting in line, Aunt Zelda catches sight of a man drawing a portrait in charcoal in a nearby open booth. Suddenly her face goes white, and she points to him, uttering in a quavering voice, "It's my...it's...Izzy...and if Izzy's alive...maybe..."

Mama and Papa look over and then try to calm Aunt Zelda down. Mama reminds her, "Izzy's gone"; Papa gently says the man just looks like Izzy, but he could not be, because both he and...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

Chapters 25-26 Summary

Chapter 25

As the wedding guests head toward the exit of the amusement park, they pass by Uncle Izzy's booth. Though his art supplies and pictures are still there, he is gone. A fortune teller in a neighboring booth had known Izzy well and tells the family that the artist had long pined for his wife, who was no longer with him, and for his son, who had died. That evening, when business was quieting down, he had become agitated; muttering over and over, "Now I can die happy," he had simply walked away.

The family is stunned, and Aunt Zelda sways, looking faint. Joseph, however, thinks he knows where his uncle went and slips away, hoping he is not too late. As expected, Joseph finds Uncle Izzy...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear