Ghandi, Harlem, Christ, Jews in Europe, a block man living over there on Broadway in the Union Theological Seminary in 1930: you never know the connections between things, people, places, ideas. But there are connections. You never know where you’ll find them. Most people don’t know where to find them or even that there’s any point to finding them. Who even looks? Who’s got time to look? Whose job is it to look? Ours. Historians. It’s part of our job. – from The Street Sweeper –
History can provide comfort in difficult or even turbulent and traumatic times. It shows us what our species has been through before and that we survived. It can help to know we’ve made it through more than one dark age. And history is vitally important because perhaps as much as, if not more than biology, the past owns us and however much we think we can, we cannot escape it. If you only knew how close you are to people who seem so far from you…it would astonish you. – from The Street Sweeper –
Lamont Williams is an African-American ex-con, wrongly convicted and recently released to a probationary work experience at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Lamont lives with his grandmother and dreams of finding his daughter – a young girl who is now eight or nine years old and who has been lost to him since he was imprisoned. It is while Lamont is working as a janitor at the hospital when he unexpectedly meets and ultimately befriends a Jewish cancer patient named Henryk Mandelbrot. Henryk has a story to tell about the years he spent in Auschwitz and he chooses Lamont as the person to care for this story. He makes Lamont promise to remember.
Adam Zignelik is a history professor at Columbia University. Unable to produce research to achieve tenure, he has put his career at risk. Adam is floundering professionally and personally. He lives in the shadow of his famous father – a Jewish man who worked in the Civil Rights movement and met the great Justice Thurgood Marshall.
These two men – Adam and Lamont – seem worlds apart, and yet they are closer to each other than they know. As their stories develop on parallel narrative paths, their lives begin to merge in the most unexpected of ways.
The Street Sweeper is a sprawling, beautiful work of historical fiction which takes the reader from twenty-first-century New York to the simmering days of the Civil Rights Movement to the horrifying years of Hitler’s reign in Europe. Adam’s search for himself takes him to Chicago where he discovers the work of a little known psychologist who was born as a Polish Jew but ended up in the United States just before the Holocaust brought terror to Poland. Lamont wishes only to make it through the six months of his probationary period so he can begin looking for his young daughter. How do the lives of a black ex-con and a Jewish history professor fit together? That is, in large part, the story arc of this novel. The underlying themes of racism, identity, and antisemitism weave throughout the book. But what elevates it is perhaps the idea that we are all connected as human beings despite our differences in race, religion, and beliefs.
The Street Sweeper starts out slowly. Perlman takes his time developing the main characters and then moves back and forth in time to show the reader their motivations, dreams, and failures. He introduces a large cast of secondary characters. He echos certain phrases, circles back and moves ahead. It is like drifting on the tide, being carried along through a maze of seemingly unconnected story lines. And then, at around the two hundred page mark, Perlman hits his stride and the narrative ratchets up. Finally, the reader begins to get a glimpse of what is to come.
Perlman spares the reader nothing – not the violence of racial hatred, not the shattered lives of Jews sent to death camps, not the disappointments, pain, and terror of his varied characters. At times the story feels almost too agonizing to read. And then, just when I began to wonder where the hope might be, Perlman cracks open a door which lets in the light.
Perlman’s latest novel took him years to write and it is easy to see why. There is (obviously) a huge amount of research which went into the crafting of this book which emphasizes the importance of not only our collective history, but our personal history as well. How important is it to record history? How important is it to remember individual lives within the greater scope of what has unfolded in the past? Scholars of the Holocaust know that the effort to record what was happening was a big part of the Jewish resistance effort during that time in history. The Street Sweeper includes actual historical characters and organizations like Oyneg Shabbos which was a group of historians, writers, rabbis and social workers who chronicled life in the Warsaw ghetto beginning in 1939 and ending in 1943. Fictional characters like Henryk Mandelbrot represent the thousands of individuals whose stories not only need telling, but also need remembering. Although a large part of the novel is dedicated to the Holocaust, the book also examines the Civil Rights movement and racism within the United States, and again looks at the individual stories which made up the larger historical picture.
Elliot Perlman is a talented author. He is able to weave together the lives of dozens of characters and seemingly disparate times in our historical record while fully engaging his reader. I turned the final page of this book and felt tremendously moved by what I had read. The Street Sweeper is a powerful work of fiction. It is not easy. It takes some patience early on. But in the end, I found it hard to put it aside.
Readers who love historical fiction and want to be wowed by an author who is in full command of his story, would be well-served to pick up a copy of The Street Sweeper.
- Quality of Writing:
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FTC Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review on my blog.
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