Street-savvy, almost-thirteen-year-old Aaron Broom is guarding his father's car when he witnesses a robbery gone wrong in a jewlery store across the street. To Aaron's shock, his father, a travelling watch salesman in the wrong place at the wrong time, is fingered as the prime suspect in the murder. Despite seeing the real killer flee the scene, Aaron can't do much to help in the moment--no one will take a kid's word for it. Undaunted, Aaron enlists an unlikely band of friends and helpful adults to clear his father's name.
Aaron's unusual mission is complicated by the painful realities of the Depression: His father's longtime business folded, leaving the family in financial straits; his mother is in a sanatorium after nearly dying of tuberculosis. So Aaron is forced to fend for himself while his father is held in wrongful custody. He ducks truant officers and nosy neighbors, landlords and social workers, and he bums meals from friends and relatives alike.
In his search for justice, Aaron draws upon the resources of a world-weary paperboy, an aspiring teen journalist, a kindly lawyer, and a neighborhood friend with a penchant for baking. And as they dig into the details of the case, these unconventional detectives reveal a cover-up that goes much deeper than a jewelry-store heist gone sour. Through it all, Aaron's optimistic narration and plucky resourcefulness shine through. Hotchner's latest is a rollicking ride through St. Louis at its lowest, as seen through the eyes of his most lovable narrator to date.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.70(w) x 7.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Olive where it comes into Tenth is very busy, what with the streetcars crisscrossing there, and the Scruggs Vandervort and Barney department store busy with all its shoppers, though to tell the truth, in these hard times, more lookers than shoppers. So it’s the last place in the entire world you would have expected something like this to happen. Broad daylight, June 28, summer sun already hot enough to marshmallow the street tar, fans whirling in the Cardinals’ dugout pushing the steamy air from one end to the other.
I was sitting in our Ford in a blind alleyway where my father had parked it, across the way from J & J Jewelers. He had a three o’clock appointment to show his samples of Bulova watches that were in a large leather case with wheels that he could pull. He had me in the Ford to watch out for the repleviners in case they showed up. It was my father’s constant worry, wherever we went, to keep tabs on the repleviners who, he said, were two guys from the finance company who had a court paper called a replevin that allowed them to snatch our Ford because my father had not made the regular payments for many months. The truth is my father couldn’t pay anyone anything, including the electric company, the gas company, and landlords, saying that “in a Depression as bad as this, everyone should hold their horses.” When I asked him how I’d recognize these repleviners he said I couldn’t miss them, one big and fat with a walrus mustache, the other tall and skinny, both wearing black suits and derbies. If I spotted them I was to sound the horn four quick times, he would come lickety-splitting across Olive and speed the Ford away while I was to go across Olive and get the Bulova case. I didn’t think the jewelry people would hand the case to some twelve-year-old kid, but I didn’t say anything to my father because I thought the repleviners would not be way downtown on Olive looking for this rickety Ford. My father had been on this replevin lookout for many months now.
“Another thing, no matter what,” my father had warned me, “two streetcars collide, Scruggs Vandervort burns up, you don’t leave Bertha. Without her I can’t cover customers on my Bulova list and I will be back trying to sell those god-awful glass candlesticks.”
He was talking about the hollow glass candlesticks filled with colored threads, with red threads coming out of the top like pretend flames. He used to go door to door trying to sell those dumb candlesticks, but with everyone Depression-busted they were not in the mood for fake candlesticks or actually they weren’t in the mood to buy watches either. But he did get twenty-five dollars every week from the Bulova Company and that paid some of the charge for my mother’s keep at the Fee-Fee Sanitarium in Creve Coeur plus bought us a little food but not enough to pay even part of the rent. He’d only had this Bulova job since March, and he was very anxious to make some sales so he could keep it. Most of the watches were just cases with no insides, but all lined up in rows inside the sample case they were something beautiful to look at.
Sitting in the Ford, broiling in the afternoon sun, I watched my father pull his sample case across Olive to the J & J door where he pushed the button that would buzz him in. As he started to open the buzzing door a fat man with a beard wearing overalls and a sloppy tennis hat, the rim down around his face, standing on the sidewalk, quick got in behind my father and followed him into the store before the door closed. Right away I felt funny, the way I get when I feel bad news is coming, like the doctor listening all over my mother’s back with his listener in his ears and I know before he says it that Mom had to go to the sanitarium. The way that fat man got in back of my father gave me that feeling. I strained my eyes to watch the J & J door, hoping to see my father come out pulling his sample case but it didn’t happen. What did happen was the boom, boom of gunshots, the big glass window with “J & J Jewelers” on it shattering to pieces, the door flying open, the fat man in the floppy cap coming out with a bag in one hand and a gun in the other that he was putting in his pocket as he walked down the street and disappeared among the Scruggs Vandervort and Barney people.
With the door open now, I saw my father with his sample case coming toward the door but before he could make it out the traffic cop came running with his gun in his hand and pushed him back in. I thought maybe I should go over and try to help him, but as I started to roll up the windows and lock the Ford, two more cops showed up in a cop car and the sidewalks flooded with onlookers. The sound of sirens screaming like swords cutting the air was getting closer and closer, piercing my head. I was on my knees behind the windshield to see what was happening, numb, unable to move or clear up my head, the crowd being pushed back from the jewelry store by the cops. Two cops on long-legged horses who had been on patrol were now forcing their horses through the crowd making a way for a sireny ambulance to get to the store. A cop who had been guarding the door now opened it as two men from the ambulance hurried in, pushing a stretcher on wheels.
I tried to see inside as the door opened, hoping to glimpse my father, but the door quickly closed and in no time it opened again and the ambulance men came out pushing the stretcher, this time with a man on it covered with a sheet. People in the crowd jostled each other, trying to get close to the stretcher for a good look, the horse cops having to push them out of the way so the stretcher could get back inside the ambulance. It took off as soon as the door closed, its siren back to screaming, pushing its way through the stubborn crowd. From where I was I couldn’t tell if the man on the stretcher covered with a sheet was dead or alive.
The worst was yet to come.
The door opened and there was my father coming out, the sight of him making me feel good but only for a second because instead of his sample case behind him, there were the two cops who had come in their cop car. That’s when my heart stopped. Instead of pulling the sample case, my father’s arms were bent in back of him and on his wrists were handcuffs. Handcuffs! But why? What was going on? He didn’t shoot that man. The fat man did. I should run over and tell those cops what I saw. The fat man sneaking in. The fat man putting a gun in his pocket.
But before I could move, one cop opened the back door of his car, my father got in, the cop closed the door and got in the front seat beside his partner who drove away, no siren, and whoof!, my father was gone. To jail, I guess.
I sat there dumbed out, my brain scrambled, no one to turn to, afraid. I felt crying coming up but I am not a crier and I tried hard to put it down. I was roasting in the Ford’s furnace that was getting stoked by the St. Louis sun.
I pushed myself to open all the windows but the air that came in was harder to breathe than the air inside. The rubberneckers had thinned out a little now that the ambulance had disappeared with the guy under the sheet. But there were cop cars and cops hanging around the J & J store, which meant that things were still on the skillet so I better figure out pretty quick just what I should do. Our life had given me some preparation for that. I had gone to eleven different grammar schools because my father had signed all those Depression leases--the ones where landlords gave two or three months of free rent. We’d pack up the night before the free rent ran out and move to a new place that offered a whole new period of free rent. Landlords were all in terrible shape because of a glut of vacant flats. I did all right in the new schools because one thing I am is a whiz at writing and when the new teachers saw the sentences this new kid could string together their eyes would light up and sometimes they would even advance me a grade.
But my best experience was last summer when we were all living in one room in the Westgate Hotel on Kingshighway and Delmar. That was the time that the doctor at the clinic sent my mother to the Fee-Fee Sanitarium to treat her lungs for consumption, which is what they called it. It was also the time my father got a watch-strap line to sell what he called “on the road,” the road being Illinois and Iowa. I didn’t think watch straps would light up a lot of buyers but they did give my father a break from the glass candles that he kept under one of our beds. Of course my father going on the road meant I would be living alone in 303. He arranged for me to have meals with Mr. Dinapoulus downstairs at the Dew Drop Inn. “You’re the man of the house now, Aaron,” my father said as he gave me two silver dollars “for any emergencies.”
I think I would have been all right if that eviction notice hadn’t been glued to our door. Several rooms besides ours also got them. “For nonpayment of rent now seriously in arrears, you are to vacate your premises immediately without removing any of your possessions which will remain with the Westgate until your debt has been satisfied.” But I knew that as long as I stayed in our room the landlord, Mound City Savings Bank, could not send Doug, the disgusting, bloodthirsty bellboy, into our room to do his dirty work.
But I had one big problem--I could not leave the room to go down to the Dew Drop Inn on the corner to get something to eat. I could fill up on only so much water. Also the hotel had shut off our room’s electricity so forget about reading after dark even if I had some library books I wanted to read. The Atwater Kent’s tubes had long ago burned out. The only good thing was the taxi dance hall in the basement of the hotel, the Good Times. On a good night, when it carried up, I could listen to the music played by the band: saxophone, piano, and drums. During the night, Doug, the rat-faced bellboy, would scratch on the door and make spooky noises. To defend myself, like I sometimes saw in the movies, I pushed the dresser and the two chairs and the linoleum-top table against the door. But what I couldn’t do anything about was that I was starting to starve. I finally got so hungry, so out-of-my-mind hungry, that I ate the full-color picture of a roast beef that was in an old copy of a Woman’s Home Companion that I found on the floor of the closet. I scissored the roast beef nicely, salted it, and I swear every mouthful tasted like eating the real thing. I even ate the little round potatoes that were in the picture with it.
I washed it all down with glasses of water and felt much, much better, but later that night I woke up with a killer stomachache.
Just about that time a note was slipped under the door, brought by someone on behalf of my father. He was back and suggested I pile on all the clothes I had, which wasn’t much, and told me where to meet him.
I did, leaving the remainder of the busted and unusable stuff, like torn umbrellas, in the room, thinking I would never have to go through anything like that again, but now here I was, only difference I was alone in a big city with my pop in trouble with the cops. He had obviously not told them about me roasting in the Ford or they certainly would have come across Olive by now to get me.
The Ford and me were sitting ducks. I had practiced starting it and shifting it but my legs weren’t long enough to reach the clutch and brake pedals so there was no way I could get it out of the alley, and sooner or later the Ford and me would wind up like all sitting ducks.
My head was stuffed with worries:
(One) Why had they taken my father away in handcuffs and where was he?
(Two) The Bulova case loaded with its watches was in the jewelry store with no one to keep an eye on it.
(Three) I have forty-seven cents in my pocket, total, but I have three quarters secretly hidden in a Fatima cigarette tin back at our place at the Tremont but how do I get at it? We had two rooms, one with a bed, the other with a Murphy In-A-Dor, which is where I slept. I also had my All-City Transportation Pass that they forgot to pick up when school closed for the summer. An eagle-eyed bus or streetcar conductor might grab it, but then again I’m pretty good at the quick way I flash it.
My number A‑one worry was that someone might tell my mother about my father and his handcuffs. Being upset was considered very bad for consumption and my poor mother was an outstanding worrier.
I thought of one more thing that needed one hundred percent attention: me. With my mother in a strict sanitarium and my father probably in jail, it was the city’s duty to take charge of me, like putting me in one of the city’s orphanages. Of course, if that happened I would not be able to help anyone. It almost did happen to me when I was guarding our room at the Westgate and a woman with a badge from welfare came looking for me, but I hid in the closet hanging on the inside of my father’s old raincoat, scrunching up my legs.
My mind snapped back to the present when a shiny new four-door Studebaker pulled up to the store, the driver’s door flinging open and a large important-looking man got out, slammed the door, pushed a path through the people in his way, barked something at the cop in front of the store, and was quickly let in. Maybe someone who could help my father. That got me going. I rolled up the windows, drank the last of the water in my thermos, locked the doors, crossed my fingers, and headed across Olive.
Reading Group Guide
1. How did this book complicate your ideas of life during the Depression?
2. What details do you feel best illustrated the severity of Aaron’s family’s poverty?
3. Do you see any elements of his favorite writers (for example: Edgar Allen Poe, Jules Verne, Mark Twain) in Aaron’s style of narration?
4. Compare your twelve-year-old self to Aaron. In what ways is he savvier or more independent than you were at that age? In what ways is he more naïve?
5. Aaron observes that bad news always feels more present than good news. Have you experienced that dynamic in your own life? What about in today’s news cycle?
6. What did you make of all the crime in the novel? Some illegal activities seemed acceptable while others, obviously, remained taboo – how did you understand the difference?
7. Aaron comes from a family of immigrants. How do you think his family’s foreignness affected their experience during the Depression?
8. What did you make of the ending? Is it a happy ending for everyone (Augie, Ella, Aaron’s father, etc.)?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A quick and enjoyable read, told from the perspective of twelve (near thirteen) year old Aaron Broom. He’s a big fan of mystery stories, and frequently refers to his heroes of Holmes, Poirot and Miss Marple, as his story progresses through an admittedly darker and more trying period. Aaron’s father’s business, like many in the time, has folded, and money is tight. Perhaps things could work out, but his mother is in a sanatorium for tubercular patients, and his father is currently being held as a material witness to a jewelry store heist and murder. Unfortunately, Aaron’s father WAS in the store, hoping to offload some watches and get some money for things like rent, food and life. He was unlucky enough to be shadowed into the store by the real culprit, but the police think it’s probable he was involved. This leaves our protagonist in a pickle. The apartment is unavailable to him with his father in jail, there are people from child services looking to find him and put him in care, and he’s feeling responsible to keep the family’s car hidden from the repossession agents. All at twelve. Fortunately, aside from his determination and a clear way of sorting through information, he’s also got friends willing to help him “detectify”, and even with the scarcity of everything, and the grey cloud of the depression looming over everyone, the ability of Aaron to focus, keep moving and stay mostly positive in the face of overwhelming odds and with a bit of help from his friends is lovely. Perfect for middle grade readers, to give a sense of Aaron and his friends, the unique problem-solving thought process and the moments where the realities of Depression-Era St. Louis feel both honest and intriguing, when seen from this perspective. It’s not a twisty-turny case, and there are some clues that fairly drop into his hands, but Aaron carefully sorts the pieces to find his answer, and gives a clever, if quick to read, story along the way. I received an eArc copy of the title from the publisher via Edelweiss for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.
Now. I should tell some of you, don't be fooled by the young protagonist and the lads on the vintage book cover and think this is a children's book or something. Readers from Aaron's age to the age of the author—who's around a hundred years old—are bound to enjoy this tale. An old-fashioned historical mystery it is, steeped in its Depression-era St. Louis setting, but it's not driving hard to be super-mystery-ish the entire time. During the first quarter, it kind of reminded me of reading one of those slice-of-life classics my teachers would've assigned back in school. Then, gradually and all of a sudden, I was all in. Aaron is such a mix of maturity and innocence, of inexperience, sharp wits, and relevant, real-deal principles. (You ought to hear this kid talk about his soul.) He narrates in a distinct, blunt voice, saying what's on his mind as it comes to him, and he's also funny without necessarily trying to be. I'd be having a bit of a laugh, and then, just like that, Aaron, his memories, and his next "happening" would break my heart. Then warm my heart. Then get my heart all pumped, like, "Yeah, you tell 'em, kid! You show 'em! GET it, Aaron!" I suspected I'd find this novel delightful and entertaining, but I didn't expect all the substance, poignancy, and hope that comes along with it. I also didn't expect to have tears in my eyes twice or thrice, including at the end of the story, but, well. That happened.
*3.5 stars rounded up. I would rank this heart-warming story as YA, suitable for ages twelve and up. Set in St Louis, Missouri during the Great Depression (probably 1933--the year when Prohibition was overturned by FDR), the story is told in first-person narrative by 12-year-old Aaron Broom. He is in a very difficult situation: his mother is in a sanitarium for treatment of consumption and now his father has been arrested and is being held in jail as a material witness in connection with a jewelry store heist where a clerk was killed. To make matters worse, Aaron has been locked out of their apartment and is being sought by a mean lady from Family Services. What can a poor kid do to prove his father innocent? Start asking questions,'detectifying' in Aaron's own words, and figure out who was the killer. Aaron is truly a good kid, smart, resourceful, thoughtful and brave. If anyone can figure this out, he can. Each chapter is labelled a 'Happening' in Aaron's amazing adventures. This is a quick, fun read with an interesting setting and likable characters. Whenever there's a protagonist of about this age, there's always that feeling that they are smart but not experienced enough to know how the world really works. I received an arc of this novel from the publisher via NetGalley for my honest review. Many thanks!
The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom by A. E. Hotchner is a charming depression era story set in St. Louis featuring a young protagonist. It is very highly recommended Twelve-year-old Aarom Broom (almost thirteen) is guarding his father's car from the repleviners, two guys from the finance company who would repossess the car for non-payment if they see it. His father, Fred, has an appointment at a jewelry store to show them his samples of Bulova watches - and hopefully sell them some. When his father is buzzed into the jewlery store, pulling his large sample case behind him, Aaron sees a fat man follow quickly follow his father into the store. Then he hears shots, a window shatters, and the fat man runs out of the store, tucking a gun into his waistband. The police show up and Aaron's father is soon being handcuffed and detained by the police. Eavesdropping on the officers, Aaron learns that his father is considered a material witness and possible accomplice. He will be held without bail. Since his mother is currently at a tuberculosis sanitarium, Aaron is on his own. He quickly surmises that he needs to do some "detectifying" and find out the identity of the real robber. First he will find a way to get his father's car moved and hid in a safe place, then he is going to start looking into the jewelry store employees. Aaron wrangles together a group of friends to help him, including the building manager, a newspaper boy, an ex-neighbor girl, and a kind lawyer, all while hiding from the juvenile welfare officer, trying to find his next meal, and a safe place to sleep. The Amazing Adventures of Aaron Broom is an old-fashioned tale about a self-reliant, determined young man whose clever sleuthing helps him find the answers he needs to free his father. There is a real sense of community and helpfulness that we don't generally see today portrayed in the novel. Are the answers a bit too convenient for Aaron to find? Sure, but Aaron is an appealing, optimistic, and undaunted narrator. Hotchner provides plenty of period details viewed in the matter-of-fact way a twelve-year-old would view them. This is a delightful, fast-paced, old-fashioned detective story that was a sheer delight to read. (Apparently some of this story was also covered in Hotchner's autobiographical novel, King of the Hill, 1972, which I now have on my wish list.) Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.