Sloke’s debut, a coming-of-age drama, follows the three O’Malley brothers and Sam, the young boy they help raise later in life in the fictional town of New Dublin.
When 12-year-old Jimmy’s father is killed in the Spanish-American War, the boy and his young twin brothers, Pop and Billy, learn to fend for themselves. Jimmy gets a job as an errand boy, and the twins start selling groceries. Years later, Jimmy and Billy become priests, while Pop has his own grocery store. Young Sam Jenkins, having experienced tragedy and looking for work, is somewhat of a reflection of the brothers, so Pop becomes his surrogate father and the others, his uncles. The chronological narrative covers nearly a century, most chapters covering different time periods but kept fresh with alternating first-person perspectives—from the O’Malleys’ mother, Alice, becoming the town’s schoolmarm following her husband’s death to Sam’s childhood friend, Johnny, joining the Air Force. The expansive story takes an amusingly literal interpretation of history repeating itself: Sam’s asking Pop for a job in his store is the same (almost verbatim) as Jimmy’s job inquiry years ago, and children of separate eras wind up in the same types of trouble, playing hooky or going on adventures without telling their parents or guardians. Sloke does have the tendency to highlight the more upbeat moments, which can, on occasion, soften the dramatic punch, like a significant character’s death that’s mentioned only in passing or the focusing on reunions more than people’s time away; for instance, Johnny leaves for flight school and the very next page is heading home for Christmas, making his homecoming feel a bit rushed. But the more tender scenes are nostalgic and sweet without being cloyingly so, particularly when the three brothers make sure that Sam’s first Christmas with them is a happy one. Throughout, the novel’s historical elements are incorporated superbly—a growing economy, presidents changing office and the country facing various wars, as well as the true story of Vietnam War hero Father Vincent Capodanno—all while New Dublin always seems to stay the same.
A touching story with a preference for the wistful side of life—a preference many readers will readily embrace.