Tidewater Review - April 2013

The Brownstone

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The Brownstone by Judith Reveal. 384 pages. $15.99, $3.99 Kindle.
Judy Reveal has captured the stoic mood of the country during World War II when mothers had blue stars pasted to their windows to indicate a son was fighting in Europe or the Pacific. They prayed that they would not be replaced with gold stars, noting the ultimate sacrifice.
It was an era of ration stamps for food, clothing and gasoline, jobs for women in the absence of men, and anxiety for everyone.
That was a familiar feeling for the residents of the brownstone buildings, on a block lined with the spacious houses built a half century earlier.
Sadie and Morris Goldstein are the owners, residents of the first floor front apartment and pseudo parents for most of their tenants. All except one, that is. The flat directly across the hall is occupied by Ralph and Ruth Schmidt.
Ralph is a bully with a hair-trigger temper, often blasted at his gentle wife, Ruth. He’s a laborer in the local shipyard, and he’s even more bad-tempered when word comes that their son and only child has been killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The remainder of the tenants in the three-story house are reminiscent of wartime movies popular in the 1940s ~ a selection of characters to illustrate the variety of backgrounds in the United States.
In those films there’s almost always the kid from Brooklyn with the distinctive speech, and a shy farm boy from the Midwest who gets daily letters from his apron-clad mother or his high school sweetheart.
There’s usually room in the cast for the boy from Texas, a natural PR guy with endless bragging about the superiority of the Lone Star State. Or the young cowboy with a harmonica full of lonesome tunes. Or a lady-killer cute guy with a wisp of wavy hair that falls over his forehead.
The brownstone houses a comparable mixture. Three working girls share a big flat: Doris is married to Joe, who’s on some top-secret assignment in England. Kitty is engaged to Harry, a Navy pilot in the Pacific. Elizabeth is gaga over a too-slick fellow whom the other girls have tagged as a cad.
A new tenant is unhappy Terry, who is a whiz on the piano. He’s been rated 4F in the military draft. He was eager to be part of the fight against tyrants, and to make things worse, arthritis is stiffening his fingers making his alternate wish, to perform in USO shows for the men in service, unlikely. He involves all his housemates in judging his routines.
Joe calls Doris to see if she can talk Sadie and Morris into renting one vacant apartment to a friend, a Frenchman, and his sister who are new to America. When they arrive, Marcel makes friends haltingly; Vivienne is rude and distant to any welcome gestures from the rest of the house.
One apartment is unoccupied, as it has been since Morris and Sadie bought the building almost 30 years earlier. That space is permanently reserved for Morris’s beloved brother Sol, a physician who still lives in their family home in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia ~ a town that is destined to become the site of one of Hitler’s concentration camps.
There is not one person in the house who is untouched by the war. Their evening ritual is to gather in the Goldsteins’ apartment to hear the radio news from Walter Winchell, a voice familiar to any reader who was alive at the time.
Oddly, the radio has been more often garbled with static since Marcel moved in. The broadcast always began with “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea...” News of the war troubles Morris more and more as Sol’s situation is clearly perilous.
Trouble is coming closer all the time at the brownstone. Vivienne’s lover in France has sided with the Germans. Somehow he turns up in the neighborhood and stays undercover, except to contact Vivienne. His handlers order him to find out what Marcel is doing in America. Vivienne won’t spill the beans, but mentions that one of the tenants works at a shipyard. Is it only a coincidence that new ships begin to sink on their trial runs, which were carefully kept secret?
So many people who live in the brownstone have contacts with possible spies, traitors, heroes and endangered friends that Reveal has set herself a spiderweb to unravel, which she has accomplished with uncommon grace and imagination.
Readers are cautioned to keep a hanky handy for occasional tears, and to take the phone off the hook. This is a book that’s short on schmaltz and long on good storytelling.
Young readers will capture some of the complexity and atmosphere of the times, and get a feeling for those who served and those who waited at home. Older readers will appreciate the backward glimpse of a tense period in our history.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.