“Snow in August” by Pete Hamill was a great story. It held my attention, drew me in and captivated me for two days. Hamill took some very emotionally charge subjects, put them in a literary blender, mixed them up and came up with the kind of story that has something for most everyone. You can tell that I really loved it.

This is a tale about a young, Irish Catholic boy, growing up in 1947 Brooklyn, who befriends an old Jewish Rabbi. A Holocaust survivor who lost his whole family, immigrated from Europe to try to begin again away from the horror of his past. The two strike up a very close relationship. The boy who has an intellectual curiosity about Judaism learns from the Rabbi about things he never would have learned otherwise. In return for this our young hero helps the Rabbi with his English and teaches him about living in New York.

One very nice surprise is Jackie Robinson, the great baseball player, who plays a pivotal role, exposing racism for all its rancor and bitterness. As described in the scene at a ball game Mr. Hamill uses the image of a baseball game to show the good and the bad in America. The boy who wants to teach the rabbi everything about America takes him to his first baseball game. Hamill uses Jackie as the symbol for all that is great in America and contrasts that  with some beer-drinking loudmouths that make racial cracks every time Jackie comes to the plate. When they notice the black hat, long ear locks and the beard they do not miss a beat in turning their despicable attitude towards the Rabbi. Hamill really gets a lot of mileage out of the scene.

 

 

The  real evil in this story is a street tough who runs the neighborhood by terrorizing its residents and small businesses.  Our young hero runs on a collision course with the neighborhood thug. He is compelled through a series of circumstances to save his mother, his friends, his neighborhood, and indeed his very existence. Of course it did not start out that way. The antagonist moves through the story bullying every one from the corner grocer to the Rabbi that the hero befriends. Then, there was a situation where he manhandled and almost rapes the boy’s mother. This is when the kid decides to do something about it.

Spoiler alert! If you haven’t read the book you might want to stop here. I talk about the ending, and possibilities for  alternative endings. Read the book. Then come back and finish the review. See if you agree with me.

There is one major flaw in this book I cannot get passed. It was the ending. What he decides to do is to build a “Golem” to avenge the honor of his mother and the rest of his neighborhood. Briefly, a “Golem” is the Yiddish word for avenger (I think). It grew out of the superstitious mystical world that fell over the Eastern European Jewish community during the middle ages. The “Golem” is a creature created to avenge the mistreatment of Jews by their persecutors. It is built with recitation of certain prayers and commands that come from special book called the” Zohar.” It is very holy and special book to be used only by the most pious of Jews. The rabbi in the story is one of these Jews. He had briefly told the boy about the use of Golems and the rest the boy learned on his own from reading. Consequently, in his need for revenge he actually builds this “Golem” to do his bidding. The Golem, at the boy’s command takes on the tough and destroys him. In all the honesty that 1947 Brooklyn could muster, a real live “Golem” was a little out of place here. If it was Stephan King I could have  accepted it a little easier. But I think that King would have followed the story line a little differently before the “Golem” would have made his appearance..

I think Mr. Hamill missed the point by not using the “Golem” in a more symbolic light. For example, our young hero could have gone through the ritual of building the “Golem” without actually creating a supernatural being. For fun I have taken the liberty of outlining two possible endings which use the idea of a “Golem” but doesn’t actually construct the avenging angel.

Scenario number one: Our hero decides to take on the villain himself. When he enters the pool hall, where the confrontation takes place, he charges the thug and because of the physical differences between the two begins to get pummeled. A ceiling tile falls on the villain’s head and kills him. It falls because there was some fresh red muddy earth left on it from a workman’s boots who was inside the attic that very afternoon. There is a hint of the supernatural, but not an overt avenger of righteousness, who comes in and tears up the place.

Scenario number two: There was an electrical storm brewing.  The Rabbi, fearing the safety of his young friend goes through the motions of building the “Golem.” Our hero slips and falls in some mud before he enters the pool hall. When he walks in the bad guy takes him down. At the same time the electrical storm causes a power outage and all the lights go out. When they go back on the villain is lying in a corner destroyed with fear. Our young hero is lying next to him passed out with a pool cue in his hand.  And there is a trail of mud leading to the villain. But that is because the boy was muddy when he entered. Or was it? How did he overcome someone who was twice his size and strength? When the boy comes too, he doesn’t remember anything. Our villain is not only bloodied all over his face but is a blithering idiot and cannot describe the scene that over took him. So, what happened? The final scene could be the Rabbi going through his ritual to place the “Golem” back into the Earth to be summoned another day when he is needed. Again, we have a sense of the supernatural, not a creature walking into a New York pool hall, apparently undetected by witnesses from the Synagogue, to the pool hall, and back.

These are only two ideas. They are not even fully developed but still one can see the possibilities of using such a mystical side of 16th century Judaism to realistically battle enemies in 20th century New York City. These might seem like lame endings to you, but remember I am not Pete Hamill, an accomplished author and journalist. Left to his own devices he could have come up with something that would have been more suitable for the ending of this book which wouldn’t appear silly or unbelievable.

With all due respect to Mr. Hamill, and I do, I have enjoyed his writing and commentary for years. I was disappointed in how he ended his story. But even with that I would still recommend the book, as it was a great tale about friendship, love, honor, righteousness, and America as it really should be. If Mr. Hamill ever reads this I hope he takes this criticism in the spirit of respect that it was given.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jewish community examiner

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