Moon and the Mars
This expansive novel follows the adventures of Theodora Brigid “Theo” Brook, a poor, half-Black, half-Irish orphan growing up in Five Points in lower Manhattan from 1857 to 1863. Theo dubs herself “orphan lucky”—blessed with an extended family—and she bounds easily from the tenement apartments of her Black and white grandmothers to her Irish aunt’s saloon to her Black aunt’s home in Seneca Village.
Theo’s street-savvy voice matures from a breathless age seven to a wise thirteen as she witnesses major historical events, including the operation of the Underground Railroad, the Dred Scott decision, the Panic of 1857, Irish gang wars, the building of Central Park, and the implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act by unscrupulous slavecatchers. The mingling of her two families depicts both the interconnectedness of marginalized groups at the time and the tensions between them. “My Irish family would never do anything to hurt me,” she says at one point, “but to them I’m not colored.” In the Draft Riots of 1863, New York’s Black and white communities collide in a terrifying way. An epilogue propels the story to 1878, detailing what becomes of Theo and her kin in the Civil War’s aftermath.
The characters in this novel spring from the page in full color, but the plot, fashioned mostly from Theo’s daily interactions and observations as she roams the streets, often moves slowly. The author divulges a lot of historical facts through expository dialogue (especially from Auntie Eunice, a teacher who sometimes sounds like a textbook) and devices such as a Greek chorus of newsboys spouting headlines. Additional pruning and shaping could have made way for more conflict, turning this fine novel into a stunner.