Friday, March 7, 2014

Historical Fiction: Palisades Park by Alan Brennert

This is my first time reading an Alan Brennert novel, and given my fixation with amusement parks, it is no surprise I chose Palisades Park as opposed to his previous successes. A historical fiction novel with a historic park as its setting seemed right for me. 

The Situation: For Eddie Stopka, Palisades Amusement Park had a formative presence in his life since his very first visit as a small child. After a few years away from home - a time in which he rode the rails and pretty much went wherever the trains took him, working at various carnivals along the way - it wasn't very surprising to Eddie that he would end up back at Palisades selling cotton candy as young man. It is here that he would notice a young blonde woman named Adele, working at her own stand in the amusement park. They would soon date, get married, have a family, and even a business all their own, selling the same French fries that Eddie had been so taken with as a little kid. Naturally, their children, Antoinette (Toni) and Jack would also come to love Palisades and would treat it like a second home, and the people who worked there like a second family. 

The Problem: Working at an amusement park doesn't mean that life will always be cotton candy, French fries, swimming, stage shows, rides, and the sound of the calliope. When Eddie and Adele had opened their business, World War II hadn't quite gotten started yet, not for the US. Then one day in early December, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reaches the Stopka household, and even though Eddie knows he probably won't be drafted because of his wife and kids, he still sets his mind to go. And this is only one part of the Stopka's long history with Palisades Amusement Park, and it won't be their only war. At least twice the park will experience terrifying and destructive fires. Men will be called off to fight for their country on foreign soil, leaving the park and their families behind. Adele will grow bored with running the French fry stand, longing to follow her abandoned dream of being a star in the movies or the stage. Toni will reject almost everything her mother wishes to teach her about being ladylike, the ultimate betrayal coming when she decides she wants to be a female high-diver. And even Jack will eventually feel the desire to fight in a war. Meanwhile, Palisades goes through its own growth of change, from rations during WWII, to the tension of pool segregation when Toni and Jack are teenagers. The amusement park is still a business run by human beings trying to make a living. And while it seems like a place where the fun never stops, especially if you're a kid, it is still just as affected by the events surrounding it as the people are who run it.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel about the real Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey that closed in 1971. The book is even described as Brennert's love letter to a cherished part of his childhood. And while Hawaii featured heavily in his previous books, Palisades Amusement Park is that star of this show. However, Eddie does spend his time in Hawaii as he is stationed there in WWII, and it is where he gets the idea to open his Hawaii-themed restaurant, even before it becomes a state. Even though the book follows the history of the Stopka family, beginning in Eddie's childhood with his first visit to the amusement park, it is just as much a history of the park itself as it ends more or less with the park's closing. But the book also follows many characters as they travel away from New Jersey, mainly Eddie when he serves in the war, and Toni when she begins to travel and perfect her high-diving routine. It is almost a study of life working in amusement parks and carnivals overall with just a heavier focus on Palisades. And some of the other themes included the cost of following your dreams, as well as the regret of not following them at all.

My Verdict: I have my issues with this book, but overall I enjoyed it immensely. Of course, as I explained when I reviewed Stephen King's Joyland, when it comes to amusement parks I am more than a little biased as they are one of my favorite things in life. I am mostly about the rides, but really I just love amusement parks. And while I love riding a good roller coaster, I also love reading about them and reading about the history of the parks in general. Not only did Brennert give me a thorough history of Palisades, but he also gave me the wonderful story of the Stopka family to go along with it. The reader gets to see little Eddie grow up and have a family of his own as well as a business at the park. And then we see the same thing all over again with his children, all with the sights and sounds of Palisades as the backdrop. One of my issues with the book, however, comes with the long and sustained absence of certain characters later in the book, who were the main focus for quite a while closer to the beginning. So long, in fact, that it was my belief that they would remain the focus for the duration of the book. But maybe that is just an illustration of life at Palisades. As the park continues to grow and change, so do the people around it, with some moving on and others never leaving. Although many times, as with this book, there were some who even made a very welcome return.

Favorite Moment: When Toni returns to Palisades after a long absence to find that the rumors were true: the owners had finally decided to de-segregate the pool.

Favorite Character: While I didn't think she would be when she first appeared in the book, Toni Stopka ended up being my favorite character. Being a Stopka, she has known Palisades all her life and fell in love with the idea of high-diving from the very first time she saw one perform at the free-act stage. Despite some setbacks, she manages to work hard and make her dream come true.

Recommended Reading: It probably won't be much of a surprise that I recommend Stephen King's Joyland. While both novels focus heavily on the amusement park industry and use one as the main setting, King's novel is more of a mystery/thriller as opposed to a story that looks back on the industry with a sense of nostalgia and longing. His book might actually scare you away from amusement parks and carnivals, specifically the haunted house rides (there is always one), while Brennert's book will make you want to find the nearest cotton candy stand and ride the bumper cars. 

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