Donna Jo Napoli

The King of Mulberry Street

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The King of Mulberry Street Summary

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Donna Jo Napoli’s novel The King of Mulberry Street follows Beniamino, a nine-year-old Jewish boy, from Napoli, Italy, who stows away on a ship and immigrates to New York City through Ellis Island in 1882. Afraid of being identified as Jewish, Beniamino changes his name to Dom. He yearns to return to his life in Italy, despite being publicly ostracized for being an illegitimate child. He learns to survive on the streets of New York, befriending a triangle player, a store owner, and a fellow orphan. Ultimately, Dom learns that families are not inherited, but constructed and nurtured. The novel received positive criticism for its compelling depiction of the resilience and capacious imaginations of young immigrants, who make fulfilling lives for themselves despite a national climate of prejudice and poverty.

The novel begins in Napoli, where Beniamino lives with his mother and eight other family members. Because Ben’s mother is unmarried with a child, she is considered an outcast and constantly refused work. Eventually, she decides the family cannot survive under these conditions. One morning, she wakes Ben and asks him to put on his clothes for synagogue. She wishes him a long life as she helps him to board a cargo ship that is leaving for America. He is ejected from the ship, but loses his mother, and ends up stowing away. A fellow stowaway, who is choleric, warns him not to be seen.

The sailors discover Ben and offer him food; he learns that they are Catholic. They give him the name Dominic so that he sounds like a non-Jewish American. The other stowaway dies, and his body is buried at sea. Dom continues to observe Jewish traditions while on the ship. When the boat docks, he hides on the ship in the hope that it will return to Napoli. Franco throws him into the harbor, having promised his mother to get him to America. After swimming to shore, he waits in the third class queue for immigration. He learns of a group called the Padronis, who bring in boys from Italy in exchange for their labor. A Padroni tries to abduct Dom, but he is saved by immigration officers. They give him advice about living on the streets of New York.

Dom is almost sent to an orphanage but escapes with another boy. Following the advice of his ship’s crew, he travels to Mulberry Street, where he sleeps in a barrel. He meets a beggar child who makes money playing the triangle, and a shop owner, Gaetano. Dom trades his shoes temporarily for use of the beggar boy’s triangle and makes some money. He finds a different shop owner, Mr. Grandinetti, and works for him to save money for a ticket back to Napoli. He is devastated to find that Gaetano has sold his identity papers. He and the other orphan boy, who calls himself Tin Pan, sell sandwiches on Wall Street to turn a profit. Gaetano protects them from the Padroni, Mr. Grandinetti lends them his cutlery, and Tin Pan uses his English to sell their sandwiches. The boys begin to make enough money to spend on leisure. They take up lodging with Signora Esposito, who charges $2.00 per week, and makes them dinner each night.

One evening, Dom relieves himself in an alley and is beaten by a man who mistakes him as homeless. Signora Esposito cares for his wounds. As Dom’s self-made business improves, Gaetano honors him as the “King of Mulberry Street.” Dom begins selling Jews kosher sandwiches down on Baxter Street. Tin Pan is employed by a Padrone who abuses him severely. Dom seeks the help of a priest, who merely gives him clothes in which to bury his friend. Gaetano and Dom urge Tin Pan to leave the area before he is hurt. He reveals that his real name is Pietro and goes into hiding at Signora Esposito’s place, where she disguises him as a girl. He goes to work for Mr. Granidinetti in disguise.

Dom is amazed to find that a ticket to sail home will cost only $25. He is torn about leaving New York, since he loves his new community like family. Pietro disappears, and everyone suspects he has gone to save the other boys from his Padrone. Against Gaetano’s urging, Dom searches for him on Crosby Street, confronting the Padrone who beats him and ties him up; Dom realizes that he killed Pietro. Grandinetti and Gaetano rush to the scene with the police, rescuing him just in time. They arrest the Padrone for murder. Dom despairs, believing that he contributed to his friend’s fate. Once again, Signora Esposito cares for his wounds.

At the end of the novel, Dom finds the butcher, a Polish Jew, and asks to be taken to synagogue. There, he cries for Pietro. He reflects on the fact that he is different from the Polish Jews but able to observe his Jewish faith alongside them. The King of Mulberry Street’s highly ambivalent ending suggests that American life in the Ellis Island era was both emancipating and harsh. Though many immigrant children did not survive its challenges, many grew to love their new country and managed to form familial communities from all walks of life.