Brooklyn Bridge Summary
by Karen Hesse

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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 months earlier, who came up with the idea for the family business, making the winsome toy bears. In a stroke of genius, she named the stuffed animals after the great outdoorsman and American President, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. Now, "Teddy Bears" are in great demand; it seems that all the children in the area want one.

There are other children, though, living under the Brooklyn Bridge, who know nothing about the trendy toys. They are "the unwanted, the forgotten, the lost ones." Perpetually hungry and cold, they know they are "invisible." Only the luckier few among them can remember better times, before desperation drove them to come make their homes under the bridge.

Chapter 2

Papa decides that he needs more room for the family business, so his sister Zelda recommends a young real estate agent named Lizzie Kaplan. Joseph is bitter about the upcoming expansion, not only because it will further diminish the time his father has to spend with the family, but because the Michtoms' success is causing his friends to resent them. Joseph's malaise is lifted temporarily when a beautiful young girl comes to the house. She introduces herself as Pauline Unger; she knows Uncle Meyer from the Manhattan cafe where "free-thinkers" gather, and she has been sent by him to the Michtoms because she needs a place to stay.

Joseph immediately falls head-over-heels in love with Pauline Unger. The lovely young lady is away at her job most of the time, but she comes home every evening to have dinner with the family. Joseph badgers his mother with questions in an effort to learn more about the object of his infatuation, but Mama dismisses him with irritation. Desperate, Joseph goes to visit Uncle Meyer, who, curiously, has not come to the Michtom residence since Pauline's arrival. Uncle Meyer, like Mama, divulges little information about the family's new house guest. He tells Joseph only that Pauline will be living temporarily in his home and that he is to treat her with respect.

The ghostly figure of a child known as Radiant Boy appears regularly to the waifs living under the bridge. When he comes, it is a portent that one of them will...

(The entire section is 8,702 words.)