Reviewed by Molly Martin
Penny from Heaven
by Jennifer L. Holm
288 pages, July 25, 2006, ISBN-13: 978-0375936876
Filled with the same breezy writing style Holm used in her Baby Mouse series; Penny From Heaven introduces us to eleven-year-old Barbara Ann Falucci whose Daddy really liked Bing Crosby, and especially his song Pennies from Heaven. Presented in the first person, the narrative originates with speaker, Penny Falucci, explaining that Me-Me, Penny’s grandmother, says heaven is full of fluffy white clouds and angels. Penny has no desire for dying and Me-Me’s portrayal of heaven does not sound all that heavenly for her granddaughter. Penny’s thoughts of heaven are more butter pecan ice cream and lots of it, and swimming pools, and baseball games. The Dodgers always win, and Penny has the best seat in the stadium; the one right behind the Dodgers’ dugout. The only people who ever call her Barbara are Penny’s teachers at school.
Penny’s summer has begun much as have most previous summers. Penny’s father is deceased and Penny and her mother and grandparents live in a house that is generally pretty quiet. Penny’s secretary mom is often gone for long hours at work. Penny’s somewhat unconventional grandmother, Me-Me, is a really appalling cook whose culinary talent is filled with things involving liver and meatloaf. And Penny leads the reader to understand Me-Me’s liver is substandard to her pot roast, then again, the pot roast is inferior to her Stroganoff. Penny relates that the reader doesn’t want to know about Me-Me’s meatloaf.
Pop-Pop, Penny’s Grandpa, is a man who is somewhat deaf, always ready with inapt observations, leans toward over assessment regarding his house repair skills. His lack of plumbing expertise is particularly onerous. Penny’s Italian father came from a family filled with lots of brothers and his mother. Penny sees them all the time and she loves them, a lot, nevertheless she misses her father. Despite Penny’s best effort for pairing her mother with Uncle Dominic, Penny’s favorite uncle, it just doesn’t work. Uncle Dominic’s 1940 Plymouth Roadking has been parked in the side yard of Grandmother Falucci’s house for as long as Penny can remember. In 1953 New Jersey it is not really a usual matter that someone might be living in their car. Uncle Dominic lives in that car. It is summer. School’s out, Penny is playing baseball, hanging out with her best friend Frankie, playing baseball. Delivering groceries with Frankie who just happens to be her cousin and best friend. On the other hand, Penny can’t go swimming, she can’t go to the movies, In 1953, before a vaccine to prevent childhood polio, Penny’s mother is apprehensive that Penny might develop the dread disease. Penny considers that so far; it has been a pretty good summer. That is until her mother begins dating. There is one other thing, no one will tell her how her dad died. Everyone just says he died in the hospital. Everyone says Grandpa has a hidden cache of money. Day after day passes quickly. Frankie keeps coming up with one plot or another for locating Grandpa’s hidden stash. Frankie is positive the money must be secreted somewhere in the house or the yard. Frankie has good reason for wanting to locate the money; he is anxious to help his mother. As soon as Frankie’s father gets a jobs; he loses it just about as fast. Money is always short.
Holm has intertwined a delightful narrative within a story. On the one hand the reader spends the summer and autumn with Penny Falucci and her loving and fun loving extended family. Penny’s maternal relatives are home, Mom and apple pie American with Penny, Me-Me, Pop-Pop and Mom. While Penny’s Falucci relatives encompass many uncles, aunts, cousin and Nonny-Grandma is the pillar of the family. While the two parts of Penny’s family know one another well, they actually have little contact. The story within a story begins to surface during the last chapters of the book. Nonny and Penny’s father Alfredo-Freddy were born in Italy prior to Grandpa moving his young family to the United States. Nonny and two year old Freddy soon made friends, more children were born and then Grandpa died before citizenship was decided for Nonny. No one thought much about the citizenship until the start of World War II. Freddy had initiated his citizenship papers however had not completed them at the beginning of the war. The happenings regarding Freddy Falucci and circumstances of his death have been carefully guarded as a never spoken family secret. The secret is kept even from Penny. It is not until Penny experiences a major accident that the undisclosed is at last brought into the open.
Penny learns that apprehension and fright experienced by many US citizens during the war years often developed into prejudice and a obligation per Proclamation 2527 signed by President Roosevelt that all 600,000 non naturalized Italian -enemy aliens- were to register as a non American, and would face a number of limitations including enemy aliens could not own a radio with short wave capability, could not own a flashlight, camera, or a weapon and could not speak Italian. These enemy aliens were required to be fingerprinted and to carry pink ID booklets declaring them as enemy aliens.
Holm, herself of Italian descent, has woven the terrible fear parents of my childhood harbored regarding the horror of polio along with much of her own family émigré background into Penny From Heaven. Polio was a chief worry and crippling devastator of children prior to the 1960s when a vaccine was introduced to prevent its spread. Penny from Heaven is a vibrant, highly readable, kid pleasing, work of fiction filled with historic settings and landscapes. Active, lively writing chockful of generational gap, captivating players, thought-provoking situations, an effective female, central character, along with fascinating sub-plots all add up to a pleasurable, coming-of-age work. Penny From Heaven is sure to stir the attention of upper elementary and middle school readers. The book works well for middle grade classroom library, the school and home library, and will make a nice addition to the Social Studies list of books pertaining to particular eras in our shared history.
Reviewed by: molly martin
20+ years classroom teacher
20+ years classroom teacher