Pete Hamill’s novel, Snow in August, is beautifully written, poignant, insightful, filled with bits of humor, and a story that captures the essence of friendship, during the post Holocaust years. I read this book about ten years ago, and reread it recently.
The friendship between Michael Devlin, an Irish Catholic eleven-year old altar boy, and Rabbi Judah Hirsch seems like an unlikely match, yet their friendship develops into a strong bond, with ties that bind themselves to each other in more ways than one. They met during a snowstorm, when Michael was walking to church, and perform his altar boy duties. It was a Saturday, the Sabbath for Jews. Michael heard the Rabbi call him asking for help. Rabbi Hirsch wanted Michael to turn on the lights for him (he couldn’t do it, as it was considered work). From that day forward, Michael becomes Rabbi Hirsch’s Shabbos Goy. Through this initial meeting, their relationship develops. Michael teaches Rabbi Hirsch English, and teaches him about baseball, as the Rabbi wants to be as Americanized as possible, within his realm of Judaism. Rabbi Hirsch in turn teaches Michael Yiddish, Polish history, and teaches him Kabbalah. He also teaches Michael about the legendary Golem, and the Golem’s purpose. Both Michael and Rabbi Hirsch learn from each other, and learn eagerly.
Michael’s father was killed in WWII during the Battle of the Bulge. Rabbi Hirsch’s wife died in the Holocaust. Both boy and man are seeking acceptance, and seeking friendship in Brooklyn, during the late 1940s. Their common ground is baseball, with the advent of Jackie Robinson being signed on by the Dodgers, breaking what was then defined as “the color barrier”. Michael loves baseball, and Rabbi Hirsch is intrigued with the fact that Robinson was going to be playing for the Dodgers. The Rabbi could relate to the fact that Robinson was an outsider, yet he managed to break boundaries. Being Jewish during the 1940s certainly made one an outsider, and Rabbi Hirsch was trying to fit in in Brooklyn, while leading a synagogue. Jackie Robinson became a symbol for both Michael and Rabbi Hirsch, a symbol of overcoming adversity, a symbol of succeeding in a world of repression.
Michael was coming of age during a period of time when many of the Irish were looked down upon. He was being raised by his hard working mother. His passion, aside from baseball was Marvel comic books, and super heroes. In his neighborhood their were gangs, and one gang was called The Falcons, and was run by a no-good hoodlum named Frankie McCarthy. Frankie hated Jews, and stopped at nothing to inflict damage and pain on them. Michael witnessed a horrible incident involving a Jewish store owner. Michael’s Irish background frowned upon anyone informing on another person, even if that person committed a terrible crime. Therein lies the dilemma that he faced. He had to conjure up super strength and power in order to set things right, in order to overcome the evil that was present in his life. He had to oversee and make sure that the person who committed the crime paid for it. Justice had to be served. Michael had to try to become a super hero, himself.
Reading Snow in August brought back memories for me, of early 1950s Brooklyn. Hamill certainly knows Brooklyn’s history, and I could envision the scenes he painted, as they were so realistically written.
Snow in August is an excellent book, brilliantly written by Hamill. He infuses solid Brooklyn postwar history within the pages, not coloring over the hardships of tenement living within the confines of poverty, of gangs, and racial and cultural differences. Religious discrimination is a prominent theme of the book, and Hamill illuminates Jewish practices and traditions, and includes the mystical aspects of Judaism in the novel. The relationship between mother and son is deeply felt, evoking emotions within the reader. Snow in August is a story of survival, survival of the fittest, in a world of religious and racial hatred. It is a story of overcoming the odds, and of overcoming adverse situations. But more than that, it is a story of a deep friendship between two improbable individuals. It is a soulful and heartfelt novel, filled with reality, fantasy and magic. Once I began it, I couldn’t put the book down until I finished it. I was completely involved in the story line.
Pete Hamill’s Snow in August is a masterpiece, written by a master. One can visualize each situation through his vivid word images. It is a book that involves the reader from the beginning. The beauty of the novel is the brilliance of the author. I highly recommend Snow in August to everyone, whether they are Jewish or otherwise.