Ethereal Reader: Palisades Park

searchEvery year in August, our family would spend a night or two at the Platte County Fair. We enjoyed the experience very much. Oddly, despite the fact that I have such pleasant memories of going to the fair, I have never really been a big fan of amusement park rides. I’m a big chicken, for one thing.

The amusement park experience seems to be sort of an East Coast thing. Think Coney Island. And until the early 1970s, you could also think Palisades Park in New Jersey, right across the Hudson River from Manhattan.

Alan Brennert’s fun book  Palisades Park is clearly a tribute to this long-gone amusement park. He says in his author’s note that he grew up a mile away from Palisades Amusement Park and has many fond memories. His love for the park and for the era Palisades_Amusement_Park_3before technology took over our kids’ imaginations is obvious.

In fact, it is his clear love for the post-World War II era is what I liked best about the book. That’s because I’m a baby boomer, and my love for that same era simulates his. Times were less stressful and the world seemed a safer place. After all, we had won the war that would end all wars. Hmmmm.

Palisades Park tells the story of the Stopka family who grew up at Palisades Park. Eddie Stopka and his wife Adele run a French fry concession, and their two kids – Toni and Jack – spend their days running freely around the amusement park. The park employees are like their family.

Toni dreams of becoming a high diver, and eventually does so. Jack’s story is a bit sadder.

What I like best about Brennert’s book is that he gives us a history lesson – World War II, the Korean War, the Civil Rights movement – but not in a dull, colorless manner. Instead, we see what is happening in the world through the eyes of the characters. As a result, I not only learn what was happening in the world, but see how it affected working class people.

While some sad things take place in the book, for the most part it is a cheery look at a life that I can’t even imagine. Still, you could take Toni Stopka’s life and superimpose it on mine, and there wouldn’t be a lot of differences (well, except that I don’t dive into little tubs of water from 10 stories up!).

Palisades Park isn’t Brennert’s best book. That honor would go to Moloka’i, his wonderful book about a beautiful Hawaiian island and its infamous history. I didn’t find the writing to be very masterful, and for the most part, the story was fairly predictable. But I don’t think Brennert set out to write the Great American Novel with this effort. I think he simply wanted to write a love letter.

I think he succeeded.

I am interested in other’s thoughts on this book. Favorite characters? Do you like amusement parks? In another life, could you ever see yourself living this way? Would you read another book by Brennert?

Buy Palisades Park from Amazon here.

Buy Palisades Park from Barnes and Noble here.

Buy Palisades Park from Tattered Cover here.

10 thoughts on “Ethereal Reader: Palisades Park

  1. I loved this story and the author’s writing. As a matter of fact, I know it will be one of my fav reads of 2014. The writing was such that when I picked it back up to read I was immediately immersed right in the story. I found the characters likeable and interesting. Eddie was my fav by far. And I loved Toni’s storyline.
    This story made me reflect on my childhood. With Mom and Dad being bakery owners and Grammie living above the bakery, I spent quite a lot of time hanging out there while they worked. I can’t imagine that lifestyle for a child today. The bakery was my second home and whoever was working there was like family.
    Kris, did you listen to the song Palisades Park on iTunes? Loved it!

    • I really was drawn to all of the characters. I even liked the park owner, despite the situation with the African American woman wanting to swim. It made me smile that he always gave them a buck, even after they were adults. And yes, I listened to the song. Very cheery.

      I think I was supposed to forgive Adele, and I never quite could.

  2. I loved this book, too. Brennert’s writing engaged me. I think Jen’s comment hits it…as soon as I read a few lines I was pulled back in. I didn’t feel like there was much dramatic tension in the book, and that usually frustrates me. But, having read the book jacket and recognizing that this was the author’s reminiscence about the Park, it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I enjoyed not having to worry about some tragic incident around the next corner. Most sadness came from what was happening in the world around the characters.

    I liked imagining Palisades Park in its New York location. It must have been a haven for so many families. It was fun to get a glimpse of what happened behind the scenes with the performers and vendors. They were a hard-working bunch who really were like a family.

    I liked all the characters…well, except Adele. I admired how Eddie managed after Adele left, with little bitterness. He was simply going to do what was best for his kids. Toni was my favorite, but I just can’t imagine doing a dangerous thing like that twice a day!

    And, sisters, because I’m old, I didn’t need to find “Palisades Park” on iTunes! The melody popped into my head and stayed there throughout the reading of the book.

    • Beckie, that’s cool that you remembered the song. It was a good one! Did you read that it wasn’t supposed to be the hit of that LP? It was on the back side. I forgot about LPs. I always loved checking out the backside song. It was a nice bonus when I liked that song too.
      I never forgave Adele either. I don’t think the author wanted us to.

      • I agree about Adele. And, I think we also weren’t meant to condemn her. By the end, I understood her need to pursue her dream, even if I didn’t agree with it.

  3. Palisades Park!! Oh, the fun times I spent there as a kid when we lived in Santa Monica. Only my times were gleefully spent in Ocean Park, California: Muscle Beach. Cotton candy. The diving Bell that filled my heart with fear and dread and untold excitement. French fries that were served in a paper cone that was sprinkled liberally with malt vinegar shaken from a coke bottle with a sprinkler cork in the top. Kate Smith singing “God Bless America” while everyone stood and placed their hands on their hearts. The celebrations happening all along the sidewalks when the war ended. And, we won. We were convinced there was nothing but blue skies ahead and that we would be safe once more. No more rationing of meat and gas a and Mother could once again, buy nylons. Bubble gum for my sister and me, and new rubber tires on the car. Grandma no longer had to work at the war plant doing her Rosie-The-Riveter job! This is all to say I much prefer non fiction on my reading list. But I do love your reviews, Kris. It seems as if I already read the book when I finish your review.
    I would give a million to put my skate key around my neck on a piece of heavy string, clip on my roller skates and my sister and I make our way to Palisades Park again. Those were the days!

  4. I am glad I picked a book that was enjoyed by all of you! I thought the storyline sounded like a great escape and I wanted to read another book by this author. I wasn’t disappointed, but I do agree that Molokai was a much better book.

    I did like this book. At the beginning I was expecting it to go in a much different direction, with how the character of Eddie would be written. I kept waiting for him to cause trouble or find himself in the middle of something stressful. While he did make a choice that would ultimately cause him some unhappiness, the divorce probably would have happened at some point, given Adele’s unfulfilled dreams. I did not like Adele, but I did understand her. She wasn’t malicious, just selfish.

    Growing up in Northern California, I never went to the parks you have mentioned, but there was (probably a smaller version) at Santa Cruz Beach. I really think it was just called The Boardwalk. There was a long beach and lots of rides, arcade games, food vendors, gift shops, and a pier. I went there a few times when I was young and remember the overwhelming feeling of excitement. Just like Eddie’s family, we stayed there as long as we could because it was a two hour drive each way, and saw the park in daylight and in the dark when all the blinking lights added to the magic. We took Farrah there two years ago in early November, as that is when we happened to be visiting my parents during her school break. The day was gray and rainy. The beach and pier were beautiful, but empty. The rides were closed. I can’t even remember seeing them. I don’t know, honestly…maybe they weren’t even there. We played some arcade games but then walked across the street for Mexican food. ( Looking back that is kind of sad.)

    I agree with whoever said they liked all the characters. The author must have wanted to leave such a good feel about the amusement park with all his readers, that he wrote everyone with an overall like ale personality. One of my favorites was the swim teacher.

    I really liked the way the story ended. I was so sad when the brother (Jeff?) had such a struggle after his days in the war. I had liked him through the entire story. I was sorry for Eddie when his life seemed to fall apart. The restaurant gave them that family focus and, each in their own way, an opportunity to recover. As much as this story made me remember the days I spent at the boardwalk at Santa Cruz, it also made me remember Trader Vic’s and some special events with family and friends that I celebrated there. Until just about 4 or 5 years ago, there was one about a mile from my childhood home. I remember the atmosphere which definitely made me feel like I had been transported to another place, and the fancy drinks that had colorful flowers and fruits that were as big as the glass.

    Three summers ago we also took Farrah to Rohobeth Beach in Delaware. It had a similar boardwalk which we spent several evenings enjoying. No matter where we were in that town, we could hear the squeals of people on certain rides. You could tell it was 11:00, when everything became quiet. The most popular snack food at that “park” was actually a type of French fries. I didn’t have any, but those vendors always had a line and you wouldn’t walk five steps without seeing someone walking around eating them.

    Sounds like this book really made everyone connect in one way or another with a part of their life. I wonder if I would have liked it as much….in a different way….if I had had no connection.

    • I love that this book triggered good memories for several people. I also thought the book would go down a darker path. I think we’re used to such sad and depressing literature. I was absolutely delighted when I finally realized that the characters weren’t going to suddenly change. I think Bec said it best when she said that anything sad that happened in the book was really from what was happening in the world.

      As for the ending, I liked it as well. But that’s what made me say that I think the author wanted me to forgive Adele. I really couldn’t. But it seemed like Adele never really could forgive herself, and never really found happiness.

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