Chapters 1-2 Summary

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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...

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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 vanish, never to be seen again. Radiant Boy's own life was cut short, but he does not know that he is dead. The other children avoid him, recognizing that he brings "no hope, only despair"; he takes away their innocence.

Chapters 3-4 Summary

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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 opportunities their adopted land has to offer. Zelda and Lena do occasionally take in some sewing, but they do little else to provide for themselves. Fortunately, The Queen is generous in making sure their financial needs are met.

On one of the Michtoms' weekly visits to the Aunts, Joseph has a chance to talk to Tante Golda. The Queen, who is bitter toward men because of "something bad" which had happened to her when she first came to America, nonetheless harbors a special place in her heart for her nephew. Joseph tells her about his brief infatuation for Pauline Unger, and his aunt advises him that it would be better if he never again allowed himself to lose his head over a girl.

That evening, Joseph recounts the details of the day's events for Emily, who had stayed behind in Brooklyn to watch little Benjamin. Emily, unobtrusive but always alert, shares information about the Aunts' pasts which she has recently overheard from their parents' conversations. She tells Joseph that Aunt Mouse had once been married, but her husband had been taken ill and died at a young age. Aunt Beast had also been married, to an artist who had reluctantly sold real estate because his wife had forced him to. Something terrible had befallen the artist, but Emily does not know what it was. Joseph, however, remembers the man, his Uncle Izzy, and has a vague feeling that he knows what happened to him.

Emily loves to read and has applied to the city to run a real library in the front window of the store downstairs. That night, Joseph is seized with a great restlessness, which always seems to come upon him when he crosses the bridge to see Aunt Beast. He wishes he could be out with the guys on this summer evening, or over on Coney Island, the city's famous amusement park, riding a rocket to the moon.

A young girl wearing a torn wedding dress joins the community under the bridge. The innocent daughter of a recent immigrant, she had met a man through the classifieds; the man had promised to marry her, but instead he had cheated her out of her savings and jilted her at the altar. Unable to return home in her disgrace, The Bride had, in desperation, sought refuge under the bridge. The children helped her shed her wedding dress to "peel away the hurt" and replaced it with some widow's black stolen off a clothesline. Karl and Max sold the wedding dress and gave The Bride the money. With it, she bought food for them all—her wedding feast.

Chapters 5-6 Summary

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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 by Aunt Golda after all the members of the Michtom family had been saved.

Lizzie Kaplan had maintained a close relationship with Aunt Golda since coming to America, and she reveals to the Michtoms some of the secrets of the woman's life. Although she had never stopped in to visit, The Queen had crossed the bridge and passed by Joseph's family's home and shop many times; she had been very proud of the success that her youngest brother had achieved. Even in death, Aunt Golda had arranged to care for her sisters. She had bought each of them an apartment house in an "up-and-coming neighborhood" in Brooklyn and had hoped that Aunt Beast and Aunt Mouse would choose to move there. The Queen had calculated that the rent from the units in the apartment buildings would be enough to support Zelda and Lena for the rest of their lives, and perhaps even make them rich.

The children under the bridge have a parrot, whose language is the foulest they have ever heard. The bird had once belonged to a policeman, and it protects the youngsters by shouting out ominous warnings if ever an intruder ventures too near. The parrot also provides entertainment, telling naughty stories about people who live in fine houses in the city. The children listen to the salacious tales with glee.

Chapters 7-8 Summary

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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 finally healed. Dickie interacted with no one, until The Bride came; the bereft woman reminded him of the mother he never had, and he became her silent protector.

Chapter 8

That evening, Joseph goes out again to Prospect Park, but he cannot find Uncle Meyer's grotto; he wonders if it had been an illusion. After wandering for a while in the twilight, he returns home; Miss Weil is waiting for him outside, and Joseph is certain that his brother has died. Miss Weil takes his hand and wordlessly walks with him into the apartment. To his immense surprise and relief, Joseph discovers that Benjamin is better: the little boy is sitting in Papa's lap, eating bits of boiled chicken. Mama sends Joseph and Emily to Uncle Meyer's house to tell him the good news. Along the way, Emily tells Joseph that Papa had sent the Lepkoffs money enough for rent and food, and a little extra to help with the hospital bills. Filled with good feelings, Joseph suddenly remembers the way to Uncle Meyer's grotto and longs to take Emily and Benjamin there. It is Uncle Meyer's secret place, however, and out of respect for the man, Joseph will speak to him about it first.

Helen's baby sister Nina was given to her family by mistake; she and another baby had been switched at the hospital shortly after birth. Three years later, the mistake was discovered, and to rectify the situation, arrangements were made to restore Helen's real sister to her rightful family and send Nina to an orphanage, as her biological parents had died. Helen, however, had developed an unbreakable bond with Nina and refused to give her up. With no other options, she stole Nina and ran away with her to live under the bridge.        

Chapters 9-10 Summary

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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 Kaplan, the real estate agent, points out that the value of the building has doubled since its purchase, her attitude softens. Although Aunt Zelda dislikes property management, she does indeed appreciate property ownership. Lizzie Kaplan shrewdly suggests that the acquisitive woman might like the buying and selling of property even more.

That evening, Emily and Joseph climb out on the fire escape and sit with their legs dangling, looking over Brooklyn. They decide that the family should have a going-away party for Aunt Mouse at Coney Island, a place which has captured both children's imaginations. Later, they overhear Lizzie Kaplan talking with their parents about her horrific last days in Russia. She had been a little older than Joseph when Cossacks came to her home, raped her, and killed her parents. It was Aunt Golda who had arranged to get her out of the country soon afterwards; The Queen had literally saved her life.

The next day, Papa goes through The Queen's document box, which contains evidence of "promises of a new life for dozens of people, including...Lizzie [Kaplan]," as well as the citizenship paper crafted by Joseph; Papa takes this latter document, puts it in a beautiful frame, and hangs it in a place of honor on the wall.

Chapter 10

Lizzie Kaplan becomes a frequent visitor at the Michtom residence, and a special friendship develops between her and Uncle Meyer. Papa, Mama, and the children fall in love with the gentle woman, who somehow makes them a family again in a way in which they have not been for a long time. Pauline Unger also visits sometimes, bringing along her Russian, whom Papa hires to help with the business. Papa's workload is lightened somewhat, but he still cannot find the time to take the family to Coney Island.

The children under the bridge are not sure if the newcomer, May, is dead or alive. Her mouth is black, burned by the carbolic acid she drank in a suicide attempt, and her arms are lined with cuts. She does not talk; she only cries, with "silent tears rolling down her cheeks." She seems to want to be with them, however, so the children let her stay. 

The bond among the children living under the bridge is as strong as that in any family. Each one there is accepted, and their vengeance against anyone who would hurt one of them is "swift and sure." Even Otto, arguably the most difficult and "unlovable" among them, is gifted with "belong[ing]." Otto's story is exceptionally bizarre, as is his resulting pattern of behavior.

Otto had lived in isolation in a squalid hut with his great-grandfather. One day, the old man died, and as the boy knew no one, nor any other life, he stayed alone with the dead body for three days in the bitter cold. When he finally understood that his great-grandfather was gone, Otto set fire to the hut, wandered off, and found a new life under the bridge.

Otto loves to set fires. At night the children let him light the ash can stove they use to keep warm, and during the day, he runs behind fire trucks as they race through Brooklyn; in his confused mind, there is no difference "between people who [start] fires and people who put them out." One afternoon, thugs fall upon Otto, strip him of his clothes, and cover his skin with red paint. When he returns to his home under the bridge, naked and humiliated, The Bride and Helen bathe him in the East River, but the paint will not come off. Max and Karl take over then, and after scrubbing Otto roughly until his skin is raw, they go out to catch the perpetrators and administer "just" punishment. The two older boys return with the clothes of the chastened thugs, and Otto, with cruel elation, gets to have his pick of them.  

That night when Karl offers Otto the match to light the ash can fire, Otto refuses indifferently and walks away.

Chapters 11-12 Summary

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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 neighborhood play ball in the street. His fondest dream is to play for the Superbas, the professional baseball team that eventually became the Brooklyn Dodgers, but the truth is that Jacob probably will never even get to hold a bat. The Rostowsky family loves baseball, though, and has season tickets for the Superbas games held at Washington Park. On occasion, the Rostowskys invite one of the neighborhood children to go along with them so that Jacob will have a friend. One evening, when Joseph is out playing ball, Jacob invites him to go to a game with his family. Though Joseph is not particularly comfortable around the boy, the offer is too good for him to refuse.  

Chapter 12

When Mama learns that Joseph has been invited to see the Superbas with the Rostowskys, she says, "That's nice...Jacob doesn't have many friends, poor boy." Joseph points out, not unkindly, that he is not really Jacob's friend. Mama tells him to "be nice to that boy" and reminds him how very lucky he himself is. Mama knows that some of the neighborhood children are not very kind to Jacob and play cruel tricks on him because of his disability. Although he is annoyed at being told yet again how lucky he is, Joseph, who is decent at heart, assures his mother that he will be nice to Jacob.

Emily, who does not know much about baseball but hates being left out of anything, asks Joseph if he can sneak her into Washington Park with him when he goes to the game. She is disappointed when Joseph gently but realistically tells her there is no way he can get her in. Mama consoles Emily, assuring her that someday the whole family will go to a baseball game together. Angered, Joseph snaps sarcastically, "Yeah...like someday we'll go to Coney Island," eliciting a warning look from Mama. 

Joseph reflects that he will not mind so much sitting with "loud, strange, brain-bashed Jacob" at Washington Park if the game turns out well.

Willie's father hated him and had raised him "locked in a room with a rag tied over his mouth to keep him quiet." As a result of this mistreatment, Willie is not "all there," according to the doctors. One day, the boy finally escaped his situation and found his way to the community under the bridge. The other children do not mind the way Willie is; he does whatever they ask him to, he never complains, and best of all, he has an uncanny talent for bringing in money.

Chapters 13-14 Summary

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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 magically disperse. The boys find seats then, and when Jacob smiles craftily and tells his friend, "I didn't really feel sick, Joe," Joseph responds with a grin. "You're okay, Jake," he says.

At the ballpark, Joseph buys two Red Hots, one for himself and one for Jacob. Mrs. Rostowsky tells him, "You're a good boy, Joseph Michtom," and Jacob declares appreciatively, "I'm glad you came with us, Joe." Joseph studies his companion's face and notices that Jacob will have to start shaving soon. He realizes that had the Russians "[not] bashed in his head when he was four," Jacob perhaps could have been "the most popular guy at school." As it is, he cannot even go to school now, and most likely, no girl will ever pay attention to him.

The Superbas win, one to nothing. On the way home, everyone in the trolley celebrates; when Joseph takes leave of the Rostowskys at their apartment and goes out onto the street, all the boys crowd around, wanting to know about the game. Joseph is uncomfortable because he is getting all the attention, while Jacob is alone, watching quietly from his stoop. Joseph cuts the conversation short, using the excuse that he has to go home, but he agrees to come back after dinner for a game of stick ball.

Chapter 14

Joseph's team is trailing by six runs that evening when Jacob, who usually just watches from his window, comes out and asks Joseph if he can play on his team. Only one of the boys starts to laugh; the others turn to Joseph for direction. As his team has no hope of winning, the decision is not as difficult as it could have been. Joseph nods at Jacob, and the other boys follow his lead; Jacob excitedly goes to sit and wait for his turn to bat.

The boy who is up next pops the ball up in what should be a game-ending play, but inexplicably, the outfielder for the other team lets the ball drop. The next two batters reach base as well, allowing Jacob to come up to bat with the bases loaded.

The pitcher on the other team tosses the ball up to Jacob "the way [Joseph might] toss a ball for Benjamin—nice and easy." Jacob swings wildly at the first two pitches, but no one laughs. On the last pitch, Joseph comes up behind Jacob, puts his hands over his, and nudges the backs of his legs so that his knees are slightly bent. When the ball comes, they swing, and as the ball rolls over the infield, Jacob freezes at home plate, stunned.

The fielders on the opposing team could have easily picked up the ball and thrown Jacob out, but they let it roll into the outfield. Joseph yells, "Run, Jake," and the boy awkwardly shuffles around the bases as the outfielders pick up the ball and throw it erratically, allowing the runners and Jacob to make it all the way home. When Jacob crosses the plate, "everybody...up and down Hancock Street" goes wild. Jacob is ecstatic, and Joseph, not quite believing what has happened, knows that he has truly just witnessed "the American dream."

Mattie Schmidt's mother died on the voyage from Europe, and his father, driven to madness by his wife's death, locked himself in with his son in the hovel that was their home. The dwelling became a "wild place," attracting all sorts of vermin; the neighbors called the police, who came and took Mattie's father to jail. Mattie, however, eluded the authorities and ran through the city until he arrived at the place under the bridge. The tough guys there—Matt, Karl, Dickie, and Otto—were suspicious of him, but Mattie insisted that he was going to stay. It was Dickie who extended his hand to the newcomer first, recognizing in Mattie a "crazy meanness" which elicited a sense of kinship. Mattie, like Dickie, lived on the edge of insanity, and they chose to "be on the same side."

Chapters 15-16 Summary

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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 prepare the space for her upcoming venture, and it is not long before the window is furnished with a table, a high-backed chair, and a fancy bookcase. When the books are delivered, Emily is elated to discover that the collection is made up of an eclectic variety of popular favorites. Joseph's sister is "wonder struck" when it slowly dawns on her that she is now "the keeper of the words."

Neighbors, adults and children alike, flock to the library to browse and choose their favorite titles. Papa is proud of his daughter's endeavor; he puts a bowl of peppermints out for the customers, so that they might taste "the sweetness that comes with knowledge."

Most of the children who live under the bridge have never gone to school or experienced the normal pleasures of childhood, or if they have, they understand that these things are a part of a life that no longer exists for them. One night, though, a boy comes by who is different; he wears a fine suit, and his fingers are clean and elegant. The boy carries a violin, which he guards fiercely and plays with tenderness and love. The music he makes soothes the children and makes them remember things they have long forgotten.

Through the confession communicated in his playing, the children realize that the boy has stolen the violin, a Stradivarius "worth more than a long block of tenement houses." The instrument means everything to him. They leave it alone and make him feel at home, so that he will stay and continue to play for them.

Chapter 16 

Luna Park opens at Coney Island, and it seems as if all the boys in the neighborhood have already visited there with their families. Because Papa continues to devote all his time to the bear business, the Michtoms have not been able to go. Joseph determines to get to Coney Island on his own, but he had no way to earn spending money. He is kept busy working at the family business for no pay. When he brings this dilemma up to his parents, they lecture him about how unappreciative he is for the advantages he has received. Joseph vents his frustrations by being cross with his little brother; exasperated, Papa orders him to leave and not to "show [his] face until [he] can be a civil member of [the] family." Ironically liberated for the afternoon from "the chains of the shop," Joseph takes a perverse pleasure in his punishment. In an attempt to burn off his anger, he begins walking without direction and finds himself heading down Ocean Parkway, appreciating the beautiful scenery. It is not long before he realizes that he is heading toward Coney Island.

By the time Joseph reaches his destination, the sun has set, and his body is screaming from having walked for so long. As he stands at the entrance to Luna Park, Joseph is mesmerized; the sight before him looks "like fairyland and heaven all rolled into one." Families are happily entering the gate, but Joseph has no money. He just stands and watches, "hungry and alone." He rests at the curb for a while, and then limps dejectedly down to the beach to cool his blistered feet in soothing ocean waters. Impulsively, he strips off his clothes and wades into the dark Atlantic, wearing only his cotton underwear. He is overwhelmed with a sense of exhilaration for a short time, but after a while, he only feels exhausted.

It is only then that Joseph considers how he will get back home. He has no energy left to make the long walk in reverse, and even if he did, he would not get to his destination until late that night, "maybe not until morning." Standing waist deep in the water, Joseph thinks of his parents and realizes his folly. He has no idea how to get himself out of his predicament.                 

Chapters 17-18 Summary

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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 left over from the carbolic acid she ingested in her suicide attempt, and if it is not fixed, she will die. Fortunately, the officer carries May to the hospital, where she undergoes emergency surgery that saves her life. 

When she is better, May is sent to the House of the Good Shepherd, where she does surprisingly well and almost makes friends with the girls on her floor. She actually begins talking to them and tells them about her life under the bridge. The girls want to see this place where she lives, so they arrange to escape, tying their sheets together to make a rope and climbing from their window at night. May says that she will go first. However, the girls are afraid that she will run off and leave them, so they make her go last. One of the girls falls and breaks her leg, and in the resulting confusion, May takes off alone. She does not feel bad for leaving the others behind; clearly, they do not trust her. They are not her friends: "no one ever really was." 

May returns to the children under the bridge, and to her surprise, Nina and Helen invite her to sit with them. May actually speaks to them now. She says, "Thank you." 

Chapter 18

Joseph sits for a long time on the beach, wondering what to do. After a while, a man with a gray goatee and a paint-stained beret wanders over and sits next to him. Strangely, Joseph has no fear of this man, who inquires nonchalantly, "Someone take your clothes?" The man then invites the boy to come home with him; he has some clothes that might fit him, as he "used to have a son." Joseph thanks the man, but declines politely. The man, with a "sad sort of laugh," walks away.

Luna Park closes, and everyone goes home. Joseph remains on the beach until he can no longer stand the cold. Finally, he rises and makes his way over to the nearby police station, which has a charity tent adjoining it. A man comes out and brings him coffee, but Joseph is too embarrassed to go inside; he remains out in the shadows. An automobile comes careening down the street and hits a small dog crossing the street. Joseph goes over to the injured animal and talks to it quietly; the dog puts its head under his hand and stays there for a while, and then it rises, shakes itself, and limps away. The sun rises, and people begin arriving at the beach "for a day of pleasure" in the sun.

A little girl about the same age as Benjamin runs over to Joseph, gripping a stuffed bear in her hand. Seeing the child, Joseph is filled with an overwhelming sense of remorse; he feels that he has lost everything and that he can never go back home. When the little girl's mother comes over to ask if he is all right, Joseph tells her everything. The woman urges Joseph to ask for help at the charity tent. Joseph does as she says, and the police get him home by lunchtime. 

The children under the bridge disperse during the day, and what they do during that time is "mostly their own business." Guy goes over to Prospect Park, to watch Mr. O'Hara, who shepherds a flock of sheep there. The pastoral scene makes Guy feel safe and happy, and he thinks he would like to have a job like that someday. Mr. O'Hara notices the boy, who watches faithfully but always keeps his distance. He sometimes wonders if Guy is "some Irish spirit protecting them all from the devil."

Chapters 19-20 Summary

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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 years to talk about him, but the adults in his life have always carefully avoided even mentioning Stephen's name. Joseph himself has always been afraid to bring up the subject because he is afraid—"afraid that what happened to Stephen was [his] fault." Oddly, now that Emily wants him to talk about the boy, Joseph finds that he cannot. Instead, he tells her only that his misadventure at Coney Island was probably both the best and worst experience of his life. As he drifts off to sleep, Emily touches his arm in an unconscious gesture of respect.

While most of the children under the bridge are fast asleep, Radiant Boy glides in, and the sound of smashing glass follows him. Only the boy with the violin is awake, playing his instrument softly. Radiant Boy stops before him, but before the specter can lift his hand in the sign of death, May awakens and bravely steps between "the musician and the ghost." Thwarted, Radiant Boy moves on, the sound of crashing glass echoing behind him as he departs. Awakened now, the other children applaud "brave May," and the boy with the violin kneels and plays, just for her.

Chapter 20

Mama and Papa treat Joseph differently since his night on Coney Island—"not so much like a kid anymore." Lizzie Kaplan finds a "perfect property" for the bear business, and since Mama and Papa spend most of their time working away from home now, Emily and Joseph are frequently called upon to look after Benjamin. In the evenings, Uncle Meyer and Lizzie, and sometimes Pauline Unger and her Russian, come to visit. Dinnertime and the hours following are filled with "talk, laughter, and debate." Lizzie fills everyone in on Aunt Zelda's progress in the world of real estate, and sometimes there is a letter from Aunt Lena, describing her successful and fulfilling work with Jewish refugees.

One day, Joseph and Emily take Benjamin to Prospect Park. The three children are sitting on a bench after lunch when a policeman strides over, carrying a little girl. The girl, whose name is Estelle, is an orphan whom the officer takes on an outing "every couple of weeks." As Benjamin plays with the stuffed bear he carries with him everywhere, Estelle watches hungrily. Finally, she reaches out her arms to him, but Benjamin refuses to give her the stuffed animal.

Gently, Joseph and Emily persuade Benjamin to share his toy; the little boy reluctantly passes the bear into Estelle's outstretched arms, and he then goes off to play. While the two older children talk with the policeman, the orphan girl sits in silence, hugging the stuffed bear. Watching her, Joseph dreads the moment when they will have to ask her to return the bear to Benjamin. It does not seem fair that when the afternoon is over, he, Emily, and Benjamin and his toy will head back to their "lucky life," while Estelle will go to the orphanage, alone and empty-handed.

Chapters 21-22 Summary

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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 Emily's lap and cradles his bear for a while; then he suddenly hops off the bench and races after the officer and the little girl. When he reaches them, he wordlessly hands the bear up to Estelle. Upon his return, he takes Joseph's hand and says simply, "I go home, Joe."

Joe decides to take his siblings over to Uncle Meyer's secret grotto. As he leads the way, he watches his little brother. Benjamin seems suddenly free, released from the burden of carrying his stuffed bear everywhere with him. Joseph wonders what burden he himself is carrying and what it will take for him to let it go.

Two-year-old Janie has a real home, but one night, she toddles out a door inadvertently left open and wanders over to the community under the bridge. The children know they cannot keep her; they decide one of them will take her to the police station in the morning and leave her outside the door. Deaf Frances, who has always wanted a little sister, volunteers to do this, but before she can reach her destination, Janie points to a firehouse along the way and scrambles out of Frances's arms to see the pretty horses. The firehouse doors swing open just then, and the horses, hitched to the fire wagon, are poised to race out on a call. Seeing the baby, the fire chief stops them just in time, as Frances retreats into the shadows. Frances waits, and later she follows at a safe distance when the fire chief takes Janie back home. Reunited with her precious baby, Janie's mother weeps with relief and gratitude, and Frances weeps too.

Chapter 22

Uncle Meyer proposes to Lizzie Kaplan, and she accepts. It seems that everyone is invited to the wedding, which is a glorious affair filled with tradition. When Lizzie is asked if she will take Uncle Meyer for her husband, she cries so hard she cannot answer, so Mama shouts out her response for her, and tears of joy turn to laughter. At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom kiss, wave good-bye, and are whisked away in a white horse-drawn carriage.

When the newlyweds have gone, Papa and Mama announce to the wedding guests that the celebration "[has] only just begun." They will be hosting a grand party for the rest of the evening on Coney Island. 

Chapters 23-24 Summary

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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 boy" are dead. Aunt Zelda is temporarily mollified, and the group embarks on the spaceship ride. When it is over, the distraught woman insists on going over to the artist to get a closer look, and as it turns out, she is right: the man is her long lost husband. At that moment, Joseph comes to a realization, as well. The artist is the man he had met on the beach, the one who had offered to take him home to get some clothes and the one who had said he had once had a son. The boy he had been talking about was Joseph's cousin, Stephen.

Aunt Zelda confronts her husband, who stands frozen, looking like a dead man. Defiantly, she demands to know what happened to their son Stephen, who disappeared with his father ten years previously. Izzy insists that Stephen is dead, but Aunt Zelda will not believe him. Joseph, however, sees the man's stricken face and wonders how his aunt can doubt that he is speaking the truth.

The artist takes down a sketch of a boy with fair hair standing at the top of a staircase in his nightshirt. It is a rendering of Stephen, and he gives it to Aunt Zelda. As she takes it from him, Izzy whispers that he buried their son under the Brooklyn Bridge so that "for all eternity he should haunt [the] murdering street kids who live there."

Chapter 24

Aunt Zelda remains angry and disturbed long after she leaves her husband, even though Papa observes that Izzy does not look well, and Aunt Lena points out that Stephen's passing was his tragedy, too. The evening is not ruined for everyone, however, and the wedding group rides the "Shoot-the-Chutes" and goes to see the wild animal acts at the Hippodrome. Joseph in particular is determined to make the best of his time at Coney Island. He wants "the lights to be so bright [he would] be blind to everything outside the fantasy" of the place, and for the most part, he is. It is nearly midnight when Papa says it is time to go home. Sated, no one argues. 

Chapters 25-26 Summary

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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 sitting alone on the beach, exactly where he had encountered him the time before when he had walked to Coney Island. He calls out and tells his uncle that he is Joseph Michtom; Izzy replies,"I always wondered what happened to you...but the police were there...I knew they wouldn't let those street boys hurt you the way they hurt Stephen."

Uncle Izzy has believed all these years that the street boys pushed Stephen into the river, but Joseph, who had been there with his older cousin Stephen, tells his uncle what actually happened. Stephen and Joseph were with some boys Stephen knew, and it was these boys who began to push Stephen around. One of the boys snatched his hat and threw it into the river; fearing that his mother, Aunt Zelda, would be angry if he lost his hat, Stephen jumped into the water to retrieve it. When Stephen's 'friends" realized he was drowning, they ran away. A couple of street kids passing by saw that Stephen was in trouble; they hurried to fetch Uncle Izzy, the only adult nearby. Izzy came quickly, but by then it was too late. The police arrived, and in the tumult, Uncle Izzy managed to slip away with his son's lifeless body, while little Joseph's screams pierced the sky.

Izzy took Stephen's body home, took off his wet clothes, and dressed him in his nightgown. He then hurried away and buried his beloved son under the Brooklyn Bridge. Uncle Izzy did not return; he kept out of sight for years. He hoped Aunt Zelda would believe he had drowned in an unsuccessful attempt to save their boy.

When Joseph asks him what he will do now, Uncle Izzy says that he will leave everything behind for Zelda and "move on, start over." Joseph feels that a burden has been lifted from his own shoulders, just as Benjamin seemed to feel when he gave up his stuffed bear.

The police come to dig a great pit under the bridge, disturbing the refuge of the children who live there. At night, Radiant Boy rises out of the gash the authorities have created in the earth; his mouth is wide open, and he is screaming.

On the third day, the police find the skeleton of a boy and the tattered remains of a worm-eaten nightgown. Carefully, they remove what they have found and refill the hole; that night, the earth is at peace. When the children return to their place under the bridge, they see a bright staircase stretching down from the sky. A small barefoot boy with golden hair, dressed in a white nightshirt, climbs up the shining path. The children watch in silence as he reaches the stars, and the stairway fades away.

Chapter 26

As much as he hates to hear it, Joseph acknowledges he really is lucky. He understands, too, that "sometimes you have to make your own luck" and that realistically, "luck will only get you so far." In the end, "you got to go the rest of the way on your own two feet." 

A few days after their meeting at Coney Island, all of Uncle Izzy's "worldly belongings" arrive at Aunt Zelda's flat. Most of the items are Izzy's finely drawn portraits, and Zelda gives most of them away. The only one she keeps for herself is the sketch of Stephen in his nightshirt.

Papa requests and receives from Aunt Zelda a painting of three sisters and a little boy playing in an apple orchard in Russia. Joseph takes a painting of the Statue of Liberty that depicts a small boat rowing past it. The oarsman looks off to a far shore; he no longer needs a light to guide him, because it is sunrise, and "his bare eyes [are] enough to bring him safely home."

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