Taking Care of Cleo
Eighteen-year-old Rebecca Bearwald comes from the only Jewish family in a northern Michigan resort town during the Prohibition era. Her father owns a dry goods store that employs her mother, a frustrated former Detroit debutante. Her older and only sibling, Cleo, is autistic, and the family depends upon Rebecca to manage her. Cleo rarely speaks, but when she does, she is insistent. Cleo also has an affinity for boats and a talent for boat repair, so when she finds a wrecked boat lost by members of Detroit’s Purple Gang, she demands that Rebecca help her hide and restore it, funding the project with the sales of bootlegged liquor found with the boat. Meanwhile, their unhappy mother insinuates to her snobby Detroit sister-in-law that Mr. Bearwald’s business involves a “far-flung empire,” causing a misunderstanding that nearly has tragic results.
Broder does an amazing job of telling the story through the eyes of Rebecca, who desperately yearns for a college education and a better life. However, her expected role is to marry and continue to care for Cleo. Cleo, more self-sufficient than people give her credit for, is the only one actually focusing on her passions and obtaining what she desires from life. While everyone is busy worrying about Cleo and sometimes pitying her, she is actually content in her private world.
The dynamics between the members of the immediate and summer-vacationing extended family feel real, placing the reader right into Prohibition society. Romantic scenarios add another facet to their relationships without feeling contrived. Despite the somber-sounding subject, this novel begs to be quickly read and leaves one with an unexpected sense of hope.