Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews



North River by Pete Hamill




(Highly Recommended)




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Pete Hamill displays the breadth of his writing skills in his new historical novel, North River. Set in the 1930s, the title refers to what New Yorkers of the time called the Hudson River, and it becomes a symbol for the life of the protagonist, a general practitioner, Dr. James Finbar Delaney. Delaney wanted to be a surgeon, but an injury during World War I left him with limited use of one arm, and a life as a GP with patients who could barely afford his care. His wife abandoned him, and one day he finds his grandson, Carlito, on his doorstep with a message from his daughter that she has followed her husband to Spain, and didn’t know when she would return. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 35-38, when help for Carlito arrives in the form of Rose:

The woman arrived just before seven o’clock the next morning. At the first ring of the bell, Delaney was in the cellar, shovel­ing coal into the small boiler that heated the water. A flashlight was perched on a milk box. The sound of the bell first made him think it was Bootsie again. Some demand in the ringing. A feeling of alarm. And Monique was not yet at her desk. He closed the furnace door, laid down the shovel, grabbed the flashlight, and went up the dark­ened stairs, afraid the sound would wake the boy. But Carlito was al­ready awake, sitting on the stairs near the bottom, his pajamas blotchy with urine. He must have tried, Delaney thought. He must have stood on the bowl and tried. The boy hugged Delaney’s leg as if consumed with shame, and the doctor hefted him and carried him to the door under the stoop. This should take only a minute, boy, he whispered. Hug me to stay warm.

The woman stood beyond the gate, snow on her wool hat and shoulders. She was in her middle thirties, with olive skin, a longish nose, a strong jaw, a faint mustache. Her body looked heavy under her dark blue coat, and she was wearing men’s boots. Her black eyes glistened. She was carrying a woolen bag and a cheese box.

“I’m Rose,” she said in a gruff voice. “Angela sent me.”

“Come in, Rose. Come in.”

She stepped in as Delaney backed up, her feet crunching on the hard snow that had blown in through the night. She pulled the gate shut. Steam was easing from her heavy lips. She stomped her boots on the mat and, as Delaney held the vestibule door open, passed into the hallway. Delaney closed the second door behind her.

“This is him, huh?” she said, and smiled.

“This is Carlito.”

She grinned more widely, showing hard white teeth, and turned to Delaney.

“Okay Where’s the bathtub?”



Still in bathrobe and work shirt, Delaney brushed his teeth and washed at the sink while water ran into the small bathtub. An old showerhead rose above the tub. Steam drifted from the running wa­ter, and he used his fingers to wipe a space in the fogged-out mirror. The bathroom door was still open, and he saw Rose drape her coat over a chair. She looked thinner in a long dark dress that went below her knees, over the men’s boots. Then she pushed into the bathroom and placed the cheese box at the foot of the bowl. She removed the boy’s clothes, dropped them on the floor, and wrapped him in a large beige towel to keep him warm. The boy’s eyes were wide. What was this? Who was this? How many people were there in this world?

“Okay, get out,” she said to Delaney. “Get dressed. I gotta wash this

Delaney wiped his face, dried it, smiling as he shut the bathroom door behind him. He pulled on trousers, a clean shirt, socks, and boots. He could hear her low affectionate voice through the door: “What a handsome boy. All nice and clean now, you’re gonna be nice and clean. Hey, what’s this thing? What you got there? Nice and clean now. And your hair? Gotta wash that too. Pretty blond hair. Can’t wear it dirty”

Thank you, Rose. Thank you, Angela.

There was a slight New York curl in her voice, “doity” instead of ‘dirty” She dropped the d off every “and.” The h was banished from “thing.” She must be here a while. She’s definitely not just off the boat. Then the telephone rang for the first time in many hours. He lifted it.

“Hey, it’s me,” Monique said. “I’m at the telephone company. I told them we need the goddamned phone. I told them, hey, the man’s a doctor, people could die. Then I shot three guys at the front desk. That worked,”

Delaney laughed.

“What would I do without you, Monique?”

“You’d be doing house calls, that’s what. The patients must be go­ing nuts trying to get through to you. I’ll be there in maybe twenty minutes.”

“I’ve got a surprise waiting for you.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“You might love this one.”

“See you.”

She hung up. He buttoned his shirt. How long have you been here, Monique? How long have you been nurse and secretary and bouncer? Since we laid out the office. Since before the goddamned Depression. Since Hoover was president. Since the time when Molly found her secret garden on the top floor, her aerie, her retreat. Away from Mo­nique, who annoyed her with her energy or her precision or her daily presence. Away from the patients. Away from me. The bathroom door Opened and Rose was there, smiling a lovely smile, her face glistening from the small steamy room, snuggling the boy with one arm to her generous breasts and lifting clothes from the stroller with her other hand. Carlito was smiling too, pointing a finger at Delaney, then curling it. She dressed him quickly in two shirts and corduroy trousers.


Delaney makes a home for Carlito, and for Rose. Thanks to Hamill’s fine writing, what could become a schmaltzy story remains a tightly written historical novel that tells a plain story in a fine way. North River is among Hamill’s best works.


Steve Hopkins, October 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the November 2007 issue of Executive Times


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