Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
David Schearl, a Jewish boy who leaves Russia with his mother to settle in New York City, where his father has recently established himself. David is extraordinarily sensitive, and it is through his senses and intellect that the life of the immigrant city comes to life. He is fiercely attached to his protective mother and afraid of his harsh father, who scorns David and suspects that his son actually is the offspring of his wife’s affair with another man. The curious David makes friends with Leo, an Irish boy, and learns in rather crude fashion about Catholicism and the habits of other immigrant children. David struggles to understand and to articulate his experiences.
Genya Schearl, David’s sympathetic and fatalistic mother. She arrives in America with her son and is greeted grudgingly by her suspicious husband. He has had a difficult time settling in this new country and jumps on every word of hers that suggests to him that she is not supportive or understanding of his plight. She is patient and tries to placate him, but he knows that she does not put him first in her heart. It is David to whom she is devoted and David whom she will defend when the frustrated father tries to beat him. She tries to do the best by her husband, but she is unfaithful to him and cannot overcome the estrangement that her husband only worsens by his unforgiving and relentlessly cruel treatment of her and David.
Albert Schearl, an embittered immigrant who flounders from job to job until he lands a milk route, a job that seems to pacify him somewhat. He broods about David, whom he considers a weakling and a spoiled child. In spite of his suspicions about David’s parentage, Schearl makes certain that his son gets a Jewish education. Schearl eventually realizes that his own hostility has driven his wife and son away from him.
Leo Dugovka, an Irish boy who befriends David one day and allows him to fly his kite on a rooftop. Leo has seen much more of the city than has David. David covets not only Leo’s experiences but also his possessions, such as the rosary that Leo promises to give David if David will introduce him to one of his female cousins. Leo gets David in trouble in a scene that culminates in Mr. Schearl accusing David of adopting the Christian religion. Leo introduces David to a much bolder conception of the city and fulfills David’s yearning to grow beyond the fears of his ghetto experience.
Aunt Bertha, Mrs. Schearl’s outspoken sister. Like Leo, she provides comedy and good spirits in this otherwise grim novel. She quarrels with Mr. Schearl and goads David’s mother into confessing that she did have an affair with another man. Bertha marries Nathan Sternowitz, then opens a candy store with her husband. This is where David and Leo go to meet David’s cousin, Esther Sternowitz, and where David begins to fathom some of the mysteries of sex.