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In a Boys’ Orphanage

Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine, HarperCollins, $15.95

Harry Potter of the Hogwarts School for Wizards (needing no introduction) and Stanley Yelnats, the palindromic anti-hero of the Green Lake Camp for bad boys in Louis Sachar’s Holes, have found their match. David Caros is the newest boy-hero-being-initiated at the Hell Hole for Brats, otherwise known as the Hebrew Home for Boys.

The mischievous and poignant adventures of a bereft boy, Dave at Night, set on the Lower East Side and in Harlem of the 1920s, is narrated by a spunky and self-described troublemaker. His mother died of complications following his birth. (“No I didn’t do it on purpose, but probably I was fooling around in her belly, having a fine time, and I kicked or punched too hard, and one thing led to another and she died.”) His father, a remarried Jewish immigrant from Salonika, Greece, a woodworker who had once made a special cabinet with secret drawers for the sultan of Turkey, falls off a roof and dies too, catapulting Dave into the orphanage.

Dave smartly takes in his surroundings, matter of factly deals with his grief, shares some mildly vengeful fantasies towards the stepmother, brother, uncles and aunts who fail to rescue him, and imagines what his father would think about all this. Dave makes daring nighttime escapes, meeting up with an elderly Yiddish fortune teller, a surrogate grandfather who schlepps him along to jazz soirees and rent parties, acquainting him with the upbeat sounds and sights of the Harlem Renaissance. There he finds the love of a sweet young African-American girl, an orphan adopted by her doting and powerful entrepreneurial aunt.

Levine is best known as the author of Ella Enchanted, the Newberry honor-winning feminist midrashic novel based on Cinderella. Its heroine struggles mightily to free herself from the terrible “blessing” given to her with the best of misguided intentions, at birth: that she will always be obedient. Both books, with their unsympathetic stepmothers, are rounded out by a mixed cast of villainous and compassionate adults and peers.

Dave at Night is based on Levine’s father’s own childhood. The author writes that, as far as she knows, the real Hebrew Orphan Asylum where he lived— and whose alumni organization he joined decades later—did have strict discipline but no monsters.