Little Beniamino, born poor and fatherless in Napoli, is about to have an unwelcome adventure. Early one morning, wearing his best clothes and sporting his first pair of shoes, he ends up abandoned in the hold of a ship, headed to America. It's all so confusing for him: Where is his mother? Why is he alone? Where is he going?
When he arrives in New York City, life gets even more challenging. It is 1892 and a nine-year-old boy alone is in real danger. First, there are the immigration officials who chalk a large "O" on his clothes, marking him as an orphan. Next, and even more terrifying, are the padrones, men who pay the passages of homeless boys and then force them to work off the debt by begging.
Beniamino, now renamed Dom, is a smart little boy, trained by his mother to survive. His habit of listening and observing pays off when he strikes out on his own, following the sound of the Napolitano accents in a city of many Italian accents. Always a boy with a plan, Dom hatches a scheme to raise money and return to his beloved Mamma.
The strength of this period novel is the author's sense of place. The hierarchy of the street acts like an extra character. The street thieves, beggars and homeless boys all protect their turf. Jews are despised by all but united by their Eastern European past. In church, Italians have to worship in the basement, but the Irish get to sit in the pews. The English-speaking white-collar workers on Wall Street are secure at the top of the social order, and their casual relationship with money is just the thing for a young man with a business plan. Dom, an Italian Jew (who wisely keeps his religion a secret), must find his way in this maze.
Young readers ready for a gripping tale in the tradition of Oliver Twist will be drawn into Dom's life, his heartbreaking friendship with a beggar boy and his reconciliation with the truth. It is cliche to say that books can make history come alive, but Napoli's newest is anything but cliche.