The Street Sweeper

The Street SweeperYes, this book explores some facets of the Holocaust, but at the same time it deals with another serious topic in history, which is the Civil Rights Movement.  How these two subjects meld together in this novel is the talent of Perlman.  Since these events deal with basic human rights, they mirror each other quite well, but I have never read a story that matches them together in such a context.
There are several characters that are introduced in Perlman’s tale, who are connected to each other without them being aware of it, until the end.  It kind of brings truth to the saying, “It’s a small world”.
The book starts off with Willaim Lamont, an innocent convict finishing his time in jail and just about to do community service.  He is on a mission to find his daughter and the mother of his child so that he could continue a normal family life.  He lives with his grandmother and has a cousin Michelle, whom he admires and has fond memories of when they were growing up.  He believes Michelle could possibly help him in his quest to find his “family” or at least give him good advice, since she is a social worker.
William’s community service job is being a street sweeper at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where he meets Mr. Henryk Mandelbrot, who is a patient at the hospital.  Mr. Mandelbrot is a Holocaust survivor and forges a friendship with William so that his story of what happened in the war can be remembered and retold for years to come.  It is Mr. Mandelbrot’s way of keeping history alive.  William commits the recollections of the elderly dying man and later recites it to the man’s remaining family members, after he has died.
Meanwhile, Adam Zignelik (who is a History professor at a university) is given a new project to work on that has to do with black soldiers helping Jewish survivors flee after the  Second World War had ended.  The work involves researching Dr. Henry Border, whom we get a glimpse of as well.  It is interesting to see how Border’s life and project have an effect in the grand scheme of things.  Even Border’s wife and daughter play vital parts.  Adam has been lacking in projects lately, so this new case is a breath of fresh air—even though he is currently struggling in his relationship with his girlfriend, Diana.  He feels it best to separate, despite how much he loves her.
They are good friends with Michelle and her husband, Charles because Charles is a colleague of Adam and their fathers were friends too.  Each character’s  individual situation is eventually linked with someone else’s and they are affected by that person in one way or another.  The novel jumps from present to past throughout, linking the importance of characters in the story as a whole.
I liked how the author tied the topic of racism with religion.  Mr. Mandelbrot giving his menorah to William goes beyond what general people would believe and there is even a confrontation about this.  I enjoyed some parts more than others in this book, but overall, it is a story that does carry several important messages.  It never ceases to amaze me how humans can be so judgmental and cruel, but also friendly and willing to do something for a stranger.
What was your reaction to the novel?  How did you like the writing?  Did you enjoy the plot, or did you think it too coincidental?

If you are a member of the library, we currently have this book in hard copy format (F P4513st) only.
Check the catalog for availability.

If you liked The Street Sweeper, you may like Perlman’s other titles:
The Reasons I Won’t be Coming (F P4513r) 
Seven Types of Ambiguity
(F P4513s)
Three Dollars
(F P4513t)

To read reviews on The Street Sweeper, please click on the links below.
From The Guardian

From The New York Times:

For information about Elliot Perlman, click below:

Discussion Questions
Here are two questions to think about regarding this story:

-In what ways has Adam’s father, Jake Zignelik, influenced Adam’s life and the person Adam is?
-List the ways in which The Street Sweeper makes a case for the dignity of each human being, irrespective of where someone comes from or of what group this person belongs to.

To access the rest of the questions, which are provided by Random House Australia, please click on the link below:

Interesting Tidbit:
I was fascinated by the fact that there actually was a “Dr. Broder” who wrote the book, I Did not Interview the Dead (1949).  His real name was David P. Boder.  His Holocaust project also existed and the recordings done on a new type of machine at the time was one of the first examples of interviewing survivors right after the war.  For more information about him and his project, see the link below:

This book reminded me of …
Since there are two issues intermingled, this book calls to mind titles that revolve around the Holocaust or Civil Rights.  The moments in the novel that reflect on the Holocaust, I must say have the same feel as Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge.  Then there are the parts involving Civil Rights, which reminds me of The Help.  The love story between Adam and Diana kind of reminds me a bit of the relationship problems in The Marriage Plot.

Favorite quote from book:
The first chapter opens up with this paragraph and it rings true to what William Lamont knows about his past and also the memories that he learns from Mr. Mandelbrot: “Memory is a willful dog.  It won’t be summoned or dismissed but it cannot survive without you.  It can sustain you or feed on you.  It visits when it is hungry, not when you are.  It has a schedule all its own that you can never know.  It can capture you, corner you or liberate you.  It can leave you howling and it can make you smile.” (p. 1)

Most horrific moment in the story:
I have never been as affected or cried as much as I did when I read about the scenes where Henryk Mandelbrot is retelling what his job was during the Holocaust.  The descriptions of what happens to the victims in the gas chambers just tore me apart. (p. 391-396)

Next month’s title:
The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

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