A review of North River by Pete Hamill

Reviewed by Bob Williams

North River
by Pete Hamill
Little, Brown
2007, ISBN 978-0-316-34058-8, $25.95, 352 pages

Pete Hamill, a versatile writer of extensive background, has set North River, his tenth novel, in New York City during the years of the Great Depression.

The main character is John Delaney, a doctor. Although married with a child, he volunteered for service in the Great War and was wounded. He returns home to a wife and child alienated by his absence. The alienation with Molly his wife is permanent but he regains the affections of his daughter Grace. His war wound forces him to abandon his ambitions to be a surgeon and he settles into a practice among the poor and struggling.

Grace, now a young woman, has married a man that John has never met. He is a revolutionary of wealthy Mexican family. They have a child Carlo, almost three at the opening of the novel. Molly has run away and may be dead. John returns from caring for a friend, a wounded gangster and ex-army buddy. He finds Carlo abandoned on his doorstep with a letter from Grace. Her husband has abandoned her and she has set out to find him. He may be in Spain or he may be in Moscow. The pattern of abandonment underlies the relations of this family, torn apart by their inclinations and the stresses of the times.

John deals as he can with his anger with Grace, who shows herself to be a foolish young woman. He finds a young Sicilian woman named Rose to care for Carlo. John as Grace’s father finds himself menaced by an FBI agent. As the doctor who saved a gangster’s life he finds himself threatened by a rival gangster. The two forces are equally ominous but in different ways and he sets up defenses against them both.

But it is the coalescence of these events with the human passion between Rose and John that carries the story. Hamill charts the growth of the love between the Irish doctor and the illegal Italian immigrant with skill. To the exterior menaces are now added those of the possible return of Grace and Molly.

The Americanization of Carlo is amusing and Hamill’s depiction of the child is convincing and charming. The America of the time and place of North River is one based on political corruption and connections. It is colored with the ethnic backgrounds of the participants and appears as a haphazard but benign administration of rough justice. Hamill does a stunning job in his depiction of both sophisticated and popular Irish and Italian cultures of the time. This is an absorbing novel of the old-fashioned kind with plot complexities and well-drawn characters. It will entertain and leave the reader with durably pleasant memories.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places