Look no further than Palisades Park by Alan Brennert for a magical place to spend happy hours of reading. Eddie and Adele Stopka, parents of Toni and Jack, sell vinegar-soaked French fries near the thunder of the Cyclone roller coaster. Toni is enthralled with the divers who do daredevil stunts in the largest salt-water pool in the world. This family of dreamers shares a love for Palisades Park, which becomes a character in itself. The park has an aura of camaraderie and daring. Vendors help each other through fire, sickness, poverty and loss. The park is populated with imaginative and creative people. Economic conditions drive the sixty-year-old high diver to attempt a dive off the George Washington Bridge to prove he still “has it”. Chief Little Wolf is an American Indian wrestler. Whitey, the ballroom manager, books black jazz musicians. Jolly Irene (six hundred and fifty pounds) says she’s not a star, but a galaxy.
Once enraptured with this Palisades park microcosm, the reader is swept up into World War II, its international implications, and effects on the Stopka’s. The independence of the Stopka family members shows up early when their fearless daughter Antoinette declares “Toni” as her new name and begins high diving at age seven much to her mother’s horror. Soon they are torn apart by world events and their own independent natures. Struggles with fidelity, life ambitions and self-doubt widen the fissures between them.
The book spans 1922-1971 (the closing of the park). Some of the well-incorporated historical details include The Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and peacetime draft, big band music, Hitler, Pearl Harbor, Mafia hits, discrimination, and the Korean War.
Alan Brennert grew up in Edgewater, New Jersey, at the foot of steep cliffs, a dramatic geologic feature near New York City. The legendary amusement park overlooks the New York City Skyline and the Hudson River. Brennert certainly knows his New Jersey history and geography. He takes us on a tour from the Hudson River down the New Jersey Turnpike to Fort Dix and the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
The book is packed with period language, distinctive personalities and is full of warmth and compassion. The Stopka family is one story, but the people of Palisades Park (as well as the park itself) resound as the real stars. While we worry for the Stopka’s, we cheer for the others. The book leaves the reader with a yearning to visit the legendary park.
The book is well researched (extensive citations in Author’s Note) as well as relevant because of the popularity of this legendary amusement park. Author Alan Brennert spent many happy childhood times there. Brennert is known for turning historical events and places into irresistible fiction and he is at the top of his game in Palisades Park. It’s hard to stop reading once you begin. Book groups will love this because of the extensive discussion it will prompt. New Jersey residents will appreciate his descriptions of the geography and cultural attractions. You will learn your history in this book (1922-1971) but it will be as fun as riding the Cyclone roller coaster. A winner!