Every 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 before 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?
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