cover image Snow in August

Snow in August

Pete Hamill. Little, Brown and Company Inc, $23.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-316-34094-6

It's Christmastime, 1946. A blizzard has hit Brooklyn, but altarboy Michael Devlin, 12, is determined to be on time to serve the eight o'clock mass. On his way, he passes the local synagogue, where he sees old Rabbi Hirsch gesturing to him. It is the Jewish Sabbath, and the rabbi needs a non-Jew to switch on the light. Michael does, and is rewarded with a nickel. The boy lives with his Belfast-born mother in a tenement--his father was killed during WWI--and dreams winter dreams of Captain Marvel and of the new Dodgers rookie, Jackie Robinson. But soon neighborhood events will alter Michael's life. He witnesses Frankie McCarthy, a ""nasty prick,"" beat the Jewish owner of the corner candy store into a coma. McCarthy warns Michael to keep quiet, and the frightened boy does. Michael becomes Rabbi Hirsch's Shabbos goy, the gentile who does the needed work on the Sabbath. Soon he is teaching the rabbi, a war refugee, English and baseball. In turn, the rabbi teaches Michael Yiddish and about the golem, a monstrous, animated artificial human being. The idyll is broken as McCarthy and his gang, the Falcons, continue their reign of terror. They paint swastikas on the synagogue. They beat up Michael and sexually harass his mother. Then they batter Rabbi Hirsch nearly to death. Vowing ""never again,"" the boy, possessed of the absolute purity of belief, calls into the Talmudic past for help that will forever change his neighborhood. As in his memoir A Drinking Life, Hamill, in this beautifully woven tale, captures perfectly the daily working-class world of postwar Brooklyn. Sounding religious overtones that will thrill believers and make non-believers pause, he examines with a cool head and a big heart the vulnerabilities and inevitable oneness of humankind. (May)