The cover of this imaginative page-turner by Thane Rosenbaum, author of the memorable “Golems of Gotham,” is a photo of the bike and pedestrian lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge. The latter is both a symbol and a real span between the two lives led by the 12-year-old Sarah Stein. Because her artist-father in Manhattan and chocolate-maker mother in Brooklyn are divorcing, Sarah has to bike back and forth across the bridge between home visits.
Spunky Sarah tells her story in the first person, agonizing why her family is split, and both bored and perturbed by the judicial process – inept child psychologist, dumb court guardian, bumbling judge – that will ultimately decide her fate. Meanwhile, Sarah feels split in two.
This is the surface of the story. The rich undercoating, however, is Sarah’s unlikely friendship with a homeless, ex-firefighter named Clarence Wind, who is a magical pal, providing moral support and mystery for a little girl who has lost her family. Raggedy, alone, and with a black eye patch, Wind lives in a room in a wall of the Brooklyn Bridge that no one knows about.
Yes, Sarah is only 12, but her ability to observe and analyze makes her seems twice her age. In her sarcastic and perceptive take on marriage, she concludes: “I didn’t know that married people were supposed to make each other happy. I wasn’t happy all the time. Could I have left my parents and moved in with some other happier family?”
At the local firehouse, Sarah learns that her friend, Wind, was dismissed from the fire department for running away from a fire at the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Somehow, though, this does not jibe with the personality of the amicable and kindly man. The mystery surrounding him continues, and we eventually learn more about him as the story propels forward.
Wind is a kind of Elijah for Sarah, appearing incredibly at various places where the girl happens to be: as a waiter for Sarah’s mother’s housewarming party; a day later, ditto, at her father’s art show reception; and as a stenographer during her parents’ divorce hearing in court.
Another mysterious character in the novel is Sarah’s paternal grandmother, a child Holocaust survivor who always plays with her rosary beads. Now anyone familiar with Holocaust history would know at once that she was saved in a convent and was given the rosary as part of her Christian disguise. Sarah, however, only discovers this later.
Other coincidences abound that intersect with Sarah’s life. Grandma has known Wind, for he had been a doorman in her building. In her father’s apartment house, Sarah meets an elegant black man who looks exactly like Clarence Wind, but without the eye patch and better dressed. It turns out he is the homeless man’s twin brother.
In one hilarious scene worthy of the Marx Brothers, we see Sarah at school on Family Day, when both her parents come. Since the split, however, Sarah dresses funkily for her dad and lady-like for her mom, twin girl friends help her in switching outfits in the janitor’s closet. And guess who, magically, brought the outfits to school for Sarah?
The last scene at City Hall, where some of the novel’s diverse strands are brought together happily, is so exciting I imagined it as the end of a riveting film.
I cannot wait to see the movie.
The Stranger Within Sarah Stein, by Thane Rosenbaum, Texas Tech University Press, 148 pp., $19.95.