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Bestseller Alan Brennert's spellbinding story about a family of dreamers and their lives within the legendary Palisades Amusement Park
Growing up in the 1930s, there is no more magical place than Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey—especially for seven-year-old Antoinette, who horrifies her mother by insisting on the unladylike nickname Toni, and her brother, Jack. Toni helps her parents, Eddie and Adele Stopka, at the stand where they sell homemade French ...
Bestseller Alan Brennert's spellbinding story about a family of dreamers and their lives within the legendary Palisades Amusement Park
Growing up in the 1930s, there is no more magical place than Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey—especially for seven-year-old Antoinette, who horrifies her mother by insisting on the unladylike nickname Toni, and her brother, Jack. Toni helps her parents, Eddie and Adele Stopka, at the stand where they sell homemade French fries amid the roar of the Cyclone roller coaster. There is also the lure of the world’s biggest salt-water pool, complete with divers whose astonishing stunts inspire Toni, despite her mother's insistence that girls can't be high divers.
But a family of dreamers doesn't always share the same dreams, and then the world intrudes: There's the Great Depression, and Pearl Harbor, which hits home in ways that will split the family apart; and perils like fire and race riots in the park. Both Eddie and Jack face the dangers of war, while Adele has ambitions of her own—and Toni is determined to take on a very different kind of danger in impossible feats as a high diver. Yet they are all drawn back to each other—and to Palisades Park—until the park closes forever in 1971.
Evocative and moving, with the trademark brilliance at transforming historical events into irresistible fiction that made Alan Brennert’s Moloka'i and Honolulu into reading group favorites, Palisades Park takes us back to a time when life seemed simpler—except, of course, it wasn't.
“Palisades Park is a perfect novel. Alan Brennert does a spectacular job of laying out a family saga from 1922 to 1974... he gracefully conjures up a place and time that is no more." —The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)
"An epic journey through the life of a treasured amusement park, with a cast of characters who experience great wonders and tragedies."
—Lancaster (PA) Sunday News
"Brennert...creates a real emotional pull in his evocative description of the eccentric, hardworking people who made up the Palisades family in good times and in bad." —Publishers Weekly on Palisades Park
"This nostalgic coming-of-age tale of a little girl with big dreams is the perfect read." —Library Journal on Palisades Park
“A literate, thoughtful saga….Brennert’s tale is a universal one [and] a pleasure to read.” —Kirkus Reviews on Palisades Park
"A sweeping, epic novel . . . beautifully told." —Library Journal (starred) on Honolulu
"A lush tale of ambition, sacrifice, and survival. . . . Immense . . . yet intimate."
—Booklist on Honolulu
“A dazzling historical saga.” —The Washington Post on Moloka'i
"A poignant story." —Los Angeles Times on Moloka'i
"A superb novel." –Los Angeles Daily News on Moloka'i
Atlanta, Georgia, 1930
HOBOES CALLED THEM “side-door Pullmans,” empty boxcars with one door standing open like an unblinking eye—God’s eye, maybe, daring the brave or the desperate to trespass, knowing their journeys could end as easily in jail or in a hospital as in Chillicothe, Ohio, or Casper, Wyoming. Eddie took the dare and ran to the back platform, planting his foot in a metal stirrup and hoisting his six-foot frame up onto the ladder. But before he could step up to the second rung, he felt something grab hold of his shirt collar from behind and pull him, with a violent jerk, away from the car.
Eddie lost his grip and tumbled backward, landing on the ground with a jolt. As he lay there in the dust, stunned and winded, a boot came crashing down on his chest, knocking the remaining breath out of him. He opened his eyes to find a nasty-looking railroad bull glaring down at him.
“You ain’t goin’ nowhere, bud,” the bull declared.
The train whistled twice—a highball—signaling imminent departure.
Eddie held up his hands in surrender. “Okay,” he told the railroad cop, “you got me. Serves me right for being sloppy. But I can pay my way, all right? How much is a ticket to New York—fifteen bucks? I can pay.”
The bull’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Show me.”
The boxcar lurched forward as the train began chugging out of the station. Eddie had no doubts that this thug was going to steal all his money as a main course, then give him the beating of his life for dessert.
Eddie said, “Wallet’s in my rucksack. I dropped it over there.”
The bull, still keeping his foot on Eddie’s chest, reached down and picked up Eddie’s rucksack. He began to rummage through it for the wallet.
Eddie grabbed the man’s foot and yanked it out from under him. He toppled like a felled tree. Eddie scrambled to his feet, snapped up his rucksack. “Sonofabitch!” the bull yelled, but as he started to stand, Eddie jerked up his knee and connected with the bull’s chin. This hurt Eddie almost as much as it did the cop: he hoped the satisfying crack he heard was the bull’s jawbone breaking, not his own kneecap. The bull quickly crumpled.
Eddie made a run for a passing boxcar. His heart hammered as he ran to keep pace, threw his rucksack inside, then grabbed the door latch and pulled himself up and in. It wasn’t until he was safely aboard that he looked back, relieved to see the bull still beside the tracks, out cold.
Soon the car was rattling out of Inman Yards, one link in a long chain of rolling freight headed north. Eddie hadn’t lied: he had cash in his pocket for once and could have been eating roast chicken in a posh dining car instead of the bread and bologna in his rucksack. But it was early April and the weather was mild, and after three years of riding the rails, he had grown used to the percussion of the wheels reverberating deep inside him, even the coarse perfume of pine tar and creosote inside a boxcar.
But mostly he liked sitting near the open door, feeling the wind on his face, watching the countryside roll past without walls or windows between. At night, out here in the great empty spaces between towns, the only illumination came from the moon and stars, the train’s running lights, and the occasional farmhouses along the way. Whether lit with the warm flicker of kerosene lamps or by steadier, cooler electric bulbs, their windows always looked inviting, and Eddie imagined families sitting down to dinner or to listen to Guy Lombardo on the radio—fathers reading the paper as mothers sewed, girls played with dolls, and boys shuffled baseball cards. The glowing windows, and the images they conjured in his mind, were both warming and painful. He curled up under a cardboard blanket, dozing to the clattering lullaby of the train’s wheels and the mournful sigh of the steam whistle.
* * *
By the following afternoon Eddie was crossing the Delaware River, back in New Jersey for the first time in three years. Rolling hills gave way to roadside commerce, and then the train was swallowed up by Newark’s canyons of concrete and steel. Soon they were passing through Eddie’s old neighborhood, the Ironbound, a patchwork of ethnic enclaves girdled by the foundries and railroad tracks that gave the area its name. Eddie longed to jump off—to walk the streets with their smorgasbord of cooking smells, kielbasa on one corner, spaghetti and meatballs on another, borscht on the next. But he didn’t, and all he could see from the train was a soup kitchen doling out bread and stew, a long line of haggard men curling around the block like the tail of a starving dog.
Not until they reached the outskirts of Jersey City—the terminus, where cargo was off-loaded onto barges bound for the New York docks—did Eddie finally hop off and begin hoofing it up River Road. On his right the Manhattan skyline greeted him like an old friend he hadn’t seen in years; on his left rose the stony grandeur of the Palisades.
Eight miles later he entered the borough of Edgewater, home to companies like Alcoa, Valvoline Oil, and Jack Frost Sugar—the usual harborfront smells of salt and diesel fuel sweetened by the scent of burning sugar and molasses. In the distance stood the latticed steel towers of the new Hudson River Bridge, as yet only a single cable strung between them. At the Edgewater Ferry Terminal, ferries arrived from 125th Street in New York and trolley cars took ferry passengers up the steep cliffs and into Bergen County. Eddie looked up, pleased to find, still crowning the bluffs, a majestic if motionless Ferris wheel; the twisting wooden skeleton of a roller coaster; and a huge metal sign with towering block letters that announced:
PALISADES AMUSEMENT PARK
He took a trolley car up winding iron tracks stitched into the granite face of the cliffs, paying a nickel for the short run up to Palisade Avenue and the main gate of the park. The entrance, with its triangular marquee, still retained its capacity to evoke wonder in him. Since the park had yet to open for the season, there was no rumble of roller-coaster cars, no delighted screams or calliope music, just the hollow echoes of construction work from inside. But it still brought a smile to Eddie’s face.
A single security guard manned the gate. “Excuse me,” Eddie said. “I’m here to see…” He consulted a fraying page torn from The Billboard, the outdoor entertainment industry’s trade magazine. “John Green-wald?”
The guard gave him the once-over. Eddie supposed he must have looked (and smelled) pretty ripe after his travels; only now did it occur to him that he might’ve gone first to the nearest YMCA for a hot shower. But the guard didn’t run him off the grounds, just asked, “You got an appointment?”
“No, I’m looking for work. Mr. Greenwald, he’s the park manager?”
“Yeah, come on in.” The guard unlocked the turnstile to admit Eddie, then gave him directions to the administration building. Eddie thanked him and started walking toward the main midway.
It seemed strange to see the park so empty of crowds and laughter, but it was far from deserted: everywhere there were workmen wielding hammers, saws, or paintbrushes as they repaired and renovated rides and concessions. He passed the merry-go-round Viola had ridden, where workmen were stripping away the old paint from the Arabian horses and oiling the working parts of the magnificent Dentzel Carousel. Instead of the enticing aromas of lemonade, cotton candy, and French fries, he took in the tart odor of varnish, paint, motor oil, and fresh sawdust. He wondered where his sister was today, what she looked like now.
The nondescript offices of the administration building were at odds with the colorful world outside; the men at work inside wore suits and ties, the women conservative dresses. The amusement business was still a business, after all, and it helped to remind Eddie that he was here on business. Approaching the first desk he saw, he told a young man wearing a white shirt and dark tie, “Excuse me. I’m looking for Mr. Greenwald?”
“He’s not in right now. I’m Harold Goldgraben, I’m the assistant manager. Can I help you with something?”
“Eddie Stopka. I’m looking for a job.”
“Well, you’re in the right place, but not the right time. We open in three weeks, and we’re pretty much staffed up for the season. Do you have any experience working at amusement parks, Mr. Stopka?”
“Not parks, no, sir. But I’ve worked plenty of carnivals. I spent the last two seasons with the Greater Sheeshley Shows, a railroad carnival.”
“That’s Captain John’s outfit, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. We traveled all over the Midwest and South—Ohio, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Florida…”
“You don’t sound like you’re from the South, Mr. Stopka.”
“South Newark is more like it.”
Goldgraben laughed. “So what brings you back to Jersey?”
“I got homesick, I guess. And tired of traveling.”
“Fair enough. What kind of work did you do for these shows?”
“Little bit of everything. Started as a roustabout, lifting and loading the carnival equipment for the jump to the next town. Worked my way up to concessions—Penny Pitch, Skee Ball, Hoop-la…”
An older man in dungarees, on his way out of the office, overheard this last exchange and asked Eddie, “You ever done any ride maintenance?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve torn down Ferris wheels and put ’em back up again. Coney Island Flyers and carousels, too. And I’m good at carpentry.”
“You afraid of heights?”
The man looked at Goldgraben. “I could use another hand to sweep the Scenic. For a few days, at least.”
Goldgraben said, “Okay, tell you what, Mr. Stopka: we can offer you two, maybe three days’ work. Meanwhile I’ll ask around, see if any of the concessionaires can use an extra hand. Can’t guarantee anything, but come back first thing in the morning, you’ll report to Father Cleary here.”
Eddie looked at the older man. “You’re a priest?”
“Oh, Christ, no. That’s just a nickname, everybody here’s got a goddamn nickname.” He offered his hand, which Eddie took. “Joe Cleary, I manage the Big Scenic Railway. See you tomorrow at nine, sharp.”
Eddie was very happy when he left the office: he had a job at Palisades, even if only a temporary one.
On his way back to the front gate he passed a lemonade stand and thought of the sweet but tart drink he’d enjoyed on that long-ago night. Sure enough, there were those giant lemons hanging in the window, big and close enough to touch. Well, hell, why not? Eddie went up to the stand, reached out to take one of the lemons in his hand … and he laughed.
The lemons were made of papier-mâché and plaster.
So that was how they got them that big.
* * *
After spending the night at the YMCA in Hackensack, Eddie got to Palisades a good half hour earlier than even the security guard. The Big Scenic Railway was an old wooden coaster, its assistant manager a short fellow with a receding hairline named John Winkler, who explained Eddie’s job: “You walk the tracks, and wherever you see dirt you sweep, and wherever you see rust you oil down the track with this”—he handed him some rags and a bucket filled with a liquid corrosive—“remove the rust, then sweep it off. You sure you’re okay with heights?”
“Yeah, sure, I don’t mind.”
One of several workers “oiling and sweeping” the Scenic, Eddie ascended the mountain of lumber like a climber scaling a wooden tor. But the harder thing was going back down the other side—walking backward down a steep grade a hundred feet or more above the ground. He would soak the rags in corrosive, then scrub at whatever patches of rust he found on the tracks. After a winter of snow and rain there was a lot of oxidation, but the “oil” loosened it sufficiently that it could be swept away.
Following behind was Winkler, inspecting the tracks. He sounded out the planks, uprights, and timbers with a pick, looking for soft, spongy sections that might have rotted; checked the tracks for warps in the wood, broken screw heads, loose bolts, or worn pins in the chains that dragged the cars up the slope. If he found something not up to par, he marked it with a piece of greased chalk for the mechanics to replace or repair.
At the summit, Eddie paused to rest a moment and let his gaze wander across the thirty-eight acres of park, straddling the towns of Fort Lee and Cliffside Park, spread out below him. The silence up here was profound, broken only by the tinny voices of hammers and saws floating up from below. The great saltwater pool was empty, its green cement bed being thoroughly scrubbed with lime by a squadron of workmen. Across the main midway stood a coaster called the Cyclone, a colossus made of all black metal, its steel peaks steeper than those of the Scenic; Eddie noted that its tracks also seemed to twist like licorice sticks as they ascended and descended. What must it be like riding one of those cars, he wondered, twisting from side to side even as it plummeted to earth?
“Taking in the sights, Eddie?”
Eddie turned to see John Winkler a few yards below him, a bemused smile on his face. “Sorry,” Eddie said, quickly dipping a rag in the corrosive.
“S’okay.” Winkler climbed up to join him. “It is a helluva view.”
Eddie nodded. “And that Cyclone looks like one helluva ride.”
“Yeah, too much so. It’s all steel, so it has absolutely no give, not like a wooden coaster. People are actually scared to ride the damn thing. And all that steel is a pain in the keister to maintain, we’re losing money on it hand over fist.” This was the first, but not the last, intimation that Eddie would receive that all was not well at Palisades.
By lunchtime Eddie had worked up a substantial appetite. Sitting at a picnic table with other workmen on break, Eddie turned his attention to the ham-and-cheese sandwich he had brought to work. After one bite he heard a plaintive “miaow” from behind him and turned to find a skinny little tabby cat, its big yellow eyes staring soulfully at him, ribs visible beneath its striped fur. Eddie’s heart got the better of his stomach; he tore off a piece of ham and held it out to the cat, who scurried over and gulped it down. Then there was another “miaow” to his right, and one to his left, and Eddie found himself at the center of a pride of kitties all begging for parts of his lunch.
A tall man with an amused twinkle in his eye sat down beside him. “Don’t let these little moochers fool you,” he told Eddie as he unwrapped a pastrami sandwich. “They do okay, cadging meals off the steady staff. I haven’t seen one starve to death in the twenty years I’ve been working here.”
“Where do they all come from?”
“They live in the woodshop, curling up between the piles of sawdust. Breed like rabbits. The office staff adopts one or two each season, the rest are on mouse patrol.” He extended a hand. “Roscoe Schwarz. I blow air up women’s skirts for a living.”
Eddie laughed, remembering the Funhouse and how his mother’s and sister’s skirts were hiked up around their waists like umbrellas blown inside out by a storm. “Yeah? What does your wife think about that?”
Roscoe shrugged. “She’s not overjoyed. But she knows it pays the bills.” He took a bite of pastrami. “Before managing the Funhouse I worked the Ferris wheel for sixteen years. I like the Funhouse better, you’ve got an audience, you get laughs. Only once a lady got huffy with me, hit me with her purse.” He smiled. “She was a natural redhead, by the way.”
They shared a laugh. Eddie surrendered the last of his ham and cheese to a calico cat and resolved to pack an extra sandwich tomorrow.
By the end of the day Eddie’s legs ached like a mountain goat’s, but the next day he finished ahead of schedule and did a good enough job that he was assigned to the park’s second biggest coaster, the Skyrocket. In the middle of his third day, Eddie was called down by Harold Goldgraben, who told him, “I just spoke with Chief Borrell, he can use an extra man on his candy concession. Meet him at his hot-dog stand near the pool.”
Eddie had worked enough carnivals that he wouldn’t have been fazed to be meeting with a full-blown Indian chief decked out in war paint and headdress, but at the stand he found a tall, avuncular man around forty, wearing a police uniform. “Hi. Frank Borrell,” he said, offering his hand.
Borrell smiled. “I see you’ve noticed the uniform. No, it’s not for show. I’m the police chief here in Cliffside Park.”
Confused, Eddie asked, “And you own a hot-dog stand too?”
“This is just kind of a sideline, you know what I mean? I also sell candy floss, soda pop, apples on a stick … we got no crime to speak of in Cliffside Park, but a hell of a lot of tooth decay.”
Eddie laughed. “So how did a cop wind up selling hot dogs?”
“Lotta cops moonlight here as security guards, but me, fifteen years ago I was walking a beat on Palisade Avenue. I got friendly with the Schencks, the owners—helped them out with traffic and whatnot—and they offered to let me buy into some concessions as an investment.” He looked Eddie up and down. “The Goldgraben kid says you’re a damn good worker. You’ve worked carnivals?”
Eddie rattled off his experience, and Borrell took it in with the close attention one would expect of a policeman. Then, “I need a grind man to sell candy floss and popcorn,” not exactly police parlance. “You interested?”
“I can pay fifteen dollars a week plus two percent of the take. But that might not amount to much.”
“We’re all holding our breaths to see how this stock market crash affects gate receipts. As it is, I’ve been just breaking even. The Schenck brothers aren’t doing any better—I’m not sure how much longer they’re going to foot the bill to keep this place open. They got bigger fish to fry in Hollywood.”
“I’ve worked other shows that were getting by on the skin of their teeth,” Eddie said, though saddened to hear of it. “I know what it’s like.”
“Okay, one more thing. Palisades has an employee dress code: men have to be clean-shaven and wear coats, ties, and collared shirts during the week, a full dress suit on weekends. I’m looking at you and thinking maybe you don’t own a suit, am I correct?”
Eddie flushed with embarrassment. “No, but I can—”
“Don’t sweat it, I’ll front you the cash. Go over to Schweitzer’s Department Store in Fort Lee, get yourself a nice suit, couple ties, two or three dress shirts. You could use a haircut, too. Phil Basile’s got a barbershop here on the park grounds, tell him the Chief sent you and to shear off some of that hay on your head, put it on my tab.”
“Thanks, that’s really swell of you.”
“You got a place to stay, kid?”
“Yeah, a room at the Y.”
“My cousin Patsy’s in real estate, I’ll see if he knows of a place. No, wait a minute. Hey, Duke!” he called out across the pool area. “Duke!”
About fifty feet away, one of the men helping to clean up the pool area looked up. “Yeah?” he called back.
Borrell said, “You know the guy, don’t you, that manages the building where Lightning lives? Over on Anderson Ave?”
“So get your wop ass over here, there’s somebody I want you to meet.” The Chief turned back to Eddie and gave him a good-natured slap across the shoulders. “We’ll get you fixed up with something, kid.” Borrell then spoke three words that thrilled Eddie more than he could admit:
“Welcome to Palisades.”
* * *
Johnny Duke was not a sentimental man. “Sure, I’d miss the park if it shut down,” he told Eddie. “It’s a great place to get laid.”
John “Duke” DeNoia, one of the lifeguards at the Palisades pool, was six feet tall, husky, with curly black hair—a rugged thirty-year-old with only his scarred, pockmarked cheeks to detract from his good looks. According to him, that didn’t matter much.
“The pool is like a giant magnet for pussy,” Johnny expounded as he and Eddie made their way across the park. “Blondes, brunettes, redheads, big tits, little tits, what have you—they all come to the pool. And if you’re a lifeguard, sitting on one of them big red chairs, you might as well be a king. Well,” he added with a laugh, “a duke, at least.”
“Yeah, I was gonna ask,” Eddie said, “why Duke?”
“The Duke DeNoia was a nobleman from Naples, sixteenth century. His given name was John Carafa. I’m John DeNoia, ergo, Johnny Duke.”
“Does the park let you take girls on the rides for free?”
“Wouldn’t know. Never been on one.”
“You’ve never been on a ride here?”
“Never been on one anywhere,” DeNoia said.
“Really?” Eddie said in disbelief. “Not even as a kid?”
DeNoia shrugged. “They go up, they go down. What’s the point?”
Eddie was at a loss to reply to that.
The “Duke” grinned. “Only one thing I’m interested in riding, and it ain’t no friggin’ Ferris wheel. Though one gal I knew was kind of a cyclone.”
They reached the parking lot where Johnny kept his sporty yellow Oldsmobile Roadster. “Nice car,” Eddie said.
“Thanks. Great for getting laid. Climb in.”
Johnny opened the throttle and drove to a redbrick building with Tudor-style gables in the 700 block of Anderson Avenue. Eddie thought it looked too swank for him, but Johnny disagreed: “Times are tough, everybody’s willing to negotiate. C’mon, let’s see what they got.”
Johnny made introductions to a rumpled-looking manager: “Eddie here’s working for Lightning and the Chief. You got any singles available?”
“Yeah, I got one backs up on the alley. No fancy view or anything…”
“I don’t mind,” Eddie told him.
As they followed the manager down the hall, Eddie said in a low voice to Johnny, “Who’s … ‘Lightning’?”
“The Chief’s partner at the park, that’s his nickname. He lives in this building, I’ll introduce you. Hey, come to think, you’re gonna need a nickname yourself. Stopka—is that Russian?”
“‘Eddie the Polack’? No, wait, we got one of those already…”
The manager led them into a cramped but clean room with a Murphy bed, a small kitchen with an icebox and coal-burning stove, the promised view of an alley, and a bathroom about the size of a box of Wheaties. But it was a nice neighborhood and right on a trolley line. It rented for ten dollars a month—a bit rich for Eddie’s blood, but when Johnny bargained it down to eight-fifty, Eddie bit and paid the first month’s rent in advance.
On the way out, Johnny stopped by Dick Bennett’s apartment and introduced Eddie to him. “Hey, nice to meet ya,” Dick said, glad-handing him. “Lightning” Bennett lived up to his nickname, a fast talker not unlike many Eddie had met in the carny game but a bit slicker than most, sharply dressed and genial. “You play the ponies, Eddie?”
“I’ve got a tip on a nag called Legerdemain in tomorrow’s fifth at Freehold. I’ll be at the track, I can place a bet for you.”
Eddie demurred again. Dick didn’t hold it against him, and he even gave him a bottle of bootleg whisky (at least it looked like whisky). “Welcome to the park, kid. I don’t get by as often as I used to—I’ve got stakes in a couple of nightclubs too—but the Chief’s a great guy, you’re in good hands.”
Leaving the building, Eddie offered to buy Duke dinner by way of thanks for his help. They dined at one of Duke’s favorite haunts, Tarantino’s on Palisade Avenue, where they consumed hearty helpings of spaghetti and split the bottle of pretty good whisky Bennett had given them. “Dick gets this hooch from a guy at the track,” Duke said, “who uses it to spike a nag’s water before a big race. Man, I could run a few lengths myself after this.” He looked at Eddie, snapped his fingers, and suddenly announced: “I got it!”
“What is it they say? ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole’? You’re our Ten Foot Pole! There’s your nickname.”
Eddie smiled and hoped not.
The next day, with the money the Chief fronted him, Eddie went to Schweitzer’s Department Store and bought a blue worsted suit for $14.95 and three white dress shirts for 88¢ apiece. He bought some toiletries at Ghiosay’s Pharmacy and groceries at the Big Chief Market—mostly cans of pork and beans, Dinty Moore beef stew, a pound of Hills Brothers coffee—and moved into his new apartment. It was tiny, lacking in niceties—but it was his, not a carnival tent or boxcar. Maybe he couldn’t go back to his old home in Newark, but he was determined to make a new one for himself.
Like all concessions at the park, the Chief’s candy stand—in a good location, halfway up the main midway—fronted a larger stockroom behind what the public saw, crammed with supplies, gaming equipment, or prizes. Eddie was one of two concession agents, the other a short, round man named Lew who never seemed to be without a lit cigar in his mouth. As they shook hands, Lew said, “They call you Ten Foot, don’t they?”
Where’d you hear that?” Eddie said, appalled.
“Word travels fast. I was on the job less than thirty minutes before I became Lew the Jew.” He shrugged with equanimity. “Whatcha gonna do?”
Ride operators worked in shifts—four hours on, four hours off—but concessionaires didn’t have that luxury, often only having time for bathroom breaks and maybe twenty minutes to wolf down a quick meal. Lew and Eddie agreed to alternate doing the “grind,” the pitch to the crowd, while the other worked the counter and rang up sales. They spent the first day inspecting and cleaning the working parts of the candy floss machine—the copper bowl, the spinner with its colander-like holes in its surface, the heating elements—which Lew warned could be a little erratic.
Lew also introduced Eddie to the agent next door, a veteran grind man named Jackie Bloom, who worked a “cat rack”—an old carny game in which marks tossed balls in an attempt to knock fuzzy stuffed cats off a shelf and win plush prizes. Then Eddie made the faux pas of asking, “Where’s the gaff?”—the button or lever that threw the game.
Jackie looked at him with a mix of scorn and amusement: “You’re not working the carny anymore, kid. Everything here’s on the up-and-up. Now, that doesn’t mean this is an easy game to win. See all that fuzz on the cats? A ball can sail right through that fuzz with barely a ripple—you gotta hit the center of the cat to knock it down. But that’s not a gaff, it’s a challenge.”
Eddie was surprised to find how much the park reminded him of the Ironbound, where so many nationalities shared just four square miles of neighborhood. Palisades was a similar melting pot: August Berni, an old-timer who ran the Penny Arcade with Phil Mazzocchi, had emigrated from Italy. Plato Guimes, originally from Greece—and looking with his pince-nez glasses like a stuffy European professor out of a Hollywood movie—had operated the shooting galleries and soda stands almost from the park’s beginning. Harry Dyer, from Colchester, England, had the mug of a street brawler but the soft heart of a carny; he co-owned many park restaurants, though not the chop suey place above the roller-skating rink, which was run by Yuan Chen. All were struggling to stay afloat after the Crash.
But one concession agent made a particular impression on Eddie.
Directly across the midway was a root-beer stand whose red, white, and blue awnings one day unfolded like a flower opening to the sun. It was run by two women agents—one a shapely blonde about Eddie’s age. She had a sweet face with delicate features; he found himself stealing glances at her whenever he could. When she was at work, her wavy blonde hair would periodically get in her eyes and she would blow air out of the corner of her mouth to clear her vision. Somehow Eddie found this very fetching.
“Who’s the blonde across the way?” he asked Lew.
“Adele something-or-other,” Lew said indifferently. “She and Lois work for Norval Jennings.”
It wasn’t long before Eddie decided he needed a bathroom break and moseyed across the midway, pausing in front of the root-beer stand. He waited until the girl came up to the cash register at the front of the stand, opening the cash drawer to dust it out. Eddie stepped up, smiled, and said, “Hi.”
She looked up. Her eyes were gray—not blue, not violet, but the lightest, most beautiful shade of pearl gray. They stole away Eddie’s breath.
“Hi.” So perfunctory, she made it sound like less than one syllable.
She clanged shut the cash drawer and turned away.
Eddie’s smile sank to somewhere below his knees. He skulked off to the men’s room, and when he returned to the candy stand he concentrated on his work, doing his best to put the girl out of his mind.
But she was hard to miss, and every time he looked across the midway he saw her working her stand, her blonde hair getting in her eyes—which Eddie now knew, maddeningly, were as lucid as pearls.
Copyright © 2013 by Alan Brennert
READING GROUP QUESTIONS FOR PALISADES PARK
1. Was there a place like Palisades Park where you grew up? What did it mean to you?
2. Was Eddie justified in running away from home? Was he justified in refusing all contact with his mother and stepfather? What would you have done?
3. How was the Palisades “family” of workers and concessionaires like a real family, and how was it different?
4. Have you ever had a dream or ambition in life that you never pursued (or did)?
5. Are you a parent? Would you have encouraged or discouraged your daughter from pursuing the dangerous life of a high diver?
6. Can you imagine being a daredevil like Toni? Could you have defied social conventions of the time to live the life she led?
7. Do you think Eddie was right or wrong in enlisting in the Navy? Can you understand Adele’s angry response to it?
8. What was your reaction to Adele’s abandonment of her family?
9. Why did the author include the (true life) role the Mafia played in the history of the park (especially as regards the later civil rights protests)?
10. How does Toni’s stand against the park’s policy about African-Americans fit in with other incidents in her life?
11. Jack’s postwar illness was once called “shell shock” and would today be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. How has the treatment of this veteran’s disability changed (or not) since the Korean War?
12. Compare and contrast the dreams and desires of each member of the Stopka family and how they changed over the course of the story.
13. Would the lives of Eddie, Adele, Toni and Jack have been different if not influenced by Palisades Park? How?
Posted April 10, 2013
I read this 422 page Nook Book in one day! I visited Palisades Park back in 1966 and just that one night's memory has instilled such a happy memory that it will never go away. I enjoyed reading about the Polish-American Stopka family and about their loyalty to Palisades Park with the operation of their Saratoga French Fries stand. The family also had their tribulations especially with Adele deserting her husband and two children at such a vulnerable times in their lives. The book encompasses a legacy from 1922 until 1971 when the amusement park met its unfortunate demise. The year 1944 brought on two disastrous fires - one at Luna Park in Coney Island the other at Palisades Park. While reading this book, I could feel once again the joy of going to an old-fashioned amusement park. Oh, I learned not to go swimming until June 24th.
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Posted April 27, 2013
Well researched and easy to read, this epic novel should appeal to fans of Alan Brennert’s previous books and to those who enjoy historical fiction in the vein of Edward Rutherford and Jennifer Donnelly. Spanning a period from 1922 to 1974, the story follows the likeable Stopka family as they experience the challenges and culture of American life. Palisades Park, a New Jersey amusement park, provides a colorful backdrop for their saga.
I believe well-written historical fiction motivates a reader to learn more about the time and place in which it’s set and Palisades Park passed my historical fiction test – I frequently paused to look up people and places as I read about them. Indeed, much fact was woven in with the fiction and I have emerged from the reading a bit wiser! Highly recommended – this would be a great vacation book!
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Posted June 24, 2013
really enjoyed the lives of the stopka family and the story of palisades park...eddie was a much more likable character than his wife adele, and toni more interesting than her brother jack...but as a whole the book was very well written and painted a complete picture of carny/amusement park live for the visitor as well as the employees....you could hear the sound of the ferris wheel, and smell the cotton candy and french fries...lovely
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Posted May 17, 2013
Posted July 11, 2014
Posted March 10, 2014
Posted December 14, 2013
I really enjoyed reading this, especially since I grew up taking the bus with my friends to the park and the pool, saw the concerts, spent many days at the pool including the day after my 8th grade graduation. And now living out of state, it was a good read down memory lane. Not only about the park but about the area as well.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 4, 2013
I noticed that the excerpts quoted in most of the other reviews are not about this book-there must be some mix up.
Palisades Park-I was looking forward to this book because I went to Palisades Park as a child and also because I have really enjoyed other books by Alan Brennert. This book felt very 'flat' - did not connect or feel any empathy for the characters. I was very disappointed -a waste of my time.
Posted August 23, 2013
This is the second of Alan Brennert's books that I have read and enjoyed. Although the story centers on the daughter, Toni, the mother's voice comes through as a champion of her time.
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Posted July 25, 2013
I wish I could unreservedly recommend this book, because I loved the story and the characters. To me, one of the marks of a good book is that you invest in the characters; you find yourself either rooting for or against them. This was certainly true for me, with all the primary characters of Palisades Park. This story spanned five decades of not only the Stopka family, but also the country. Brennert expertly navigates us through major events through the years, including two World Wars, the Great Depression and the civil rights movement, showing how ordinary people were affected and involved. I learned a lot about the life of amusement park employees, and especially enjoyed the storylines about high diving. I read this book in three days, because it was hard to put down. In fact, the only complaint I would have is the language. I'm not a prude, but I found some of the language regarding sexuality, to be crude and juvenlistic. For that reason, I will not recommend it to family and friends as I would have. Perhaps that was . is common language in a fair / carnival environment, but for me, it sullied the book. Fortunately I was prepared, as I read had a review before I purchased the book, and that reviewer had been offended by the language, as well. If you can get past that, it's a wonderful story.
Posted July 18, 2013
“Evenings at the Stopka home, as in most homes in America, revolved around the welcoming voice of the radio—a tall, mahogany-veneer Philco console, standing solemn as a church organ in the corner, the family gathered round in secular congregation.”—page 97/423
With his third novel, PALISADES PARK, Alan Brennert has cemented his place among the twenty-or-so of my ‘top-ten’ all time favorite storytellers. He writes, in the Author’s Notes, “This novel is a love letter to a cherished part of my childhood.”—page 414/423. It is, indeed, a love letter, a delightful and warm love story of wondrous times and places, and of days gone by.
New Jersey is a very long way from Hawaii (the setting for Alan’s first two beautiful novels), and I’ll admit to a twinge of disappointment when I first learned that his third would be set in Bergen County, New Jersey. I should have known better. Mr. Brennert’s storytelling doesn’t disappoint. It captivates, it enthralls, it uplifts, and it brings a tear to the eye; but it never disappoints. To tens of thousands of ‘Jersey’ kids, over seven decades—myself included on at least two occasions(1)—Palisades Park was every bit of a paradise, as Hawaii could ever have been, to their imaginations.
Thank-you, A.B., for sharing the wonder and amazement. I could smell the French Fries.
Recommendation: Read only if you love reading terrific stories.
“I look like Emmett Kelly!”—page 101/423
NOOKbook from Barnes & Noble, 423 pages
(1)P.S. In the early 1960s my brother took me on my first ever, and only, (ten-minute) helicopter ride, along the Hudson River, out of Palisades Park. We had a spectacular view of the New York City skyline. During that same visit I saw Timi Yuro, one of my favorite vocalists at the time, perform. A decade earlier, I think it was at Palisades Park that I saw an act called The Riding Lion—a roaring (albeit perhaps a bit sleepy) lion sat in the sidecar of a motorcycle and was driven up and around the vertical wall of a large wooden cylinder, closer and closer to the spectators along the rim at the top. If anyone else remembers either Timi Yuro or The Riding Lion… let me hear from you.
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Posted July 10, 2013
Posted June 22, 2013
I read this book in 2 days. Really enjoyed it & I,too kept going to my computer to see some of the acts were real people [they were!]
I'm a Jersey girl & have always lived "down the shore". Kinda wish part of my childhood included Palisades Park. So far I've read all this author's books & he's battin" a thousand!
Posted June 7, 2013
I have been reading books with my book club fot ten years. This is thr poorest excuse for a book i have read in a long time. I threw it down with just a few pages to go. Ionly went that far because of my club. A toyal waste of time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 7, 2013
Posted June 7, 2013
Thoroughly enjoyed this story. It was interesting to hear about the history of the park and the people who worked there. The characters were all very likeable. Just a very good read!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 4, 2013
I especially enjoyed Palisades Park as it brought back many fond memories of my youth. The author used local references such as Hirams, Callahans, names of streets, areas, etc. that only a former resident would recognize. A trip to Palisades Park was a great outing for the youth of that time. i am sure that I will reread it just to bring back those old memories.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 25, 2013
Posted May 17, 2013
Having grown up in Cliffside Park, I especially enjoyed the parts that referred to street names and the names people. I could relate to much of what he said about Palisades Amusement Park but the story itself had parts which did not find interesting and other parts which were predictable. It was an easy read and if you are familiar with the area and the park, it might be worth reading. Otherwise I would skip it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 10, 2013
Almost from the beginning, I could smell the french fries and feel the gentle waves of the salt water pool. This is a must read for anyone who enjoyed Palisades Park.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.