Not yet 13, Joey Grosser feels he must become the man of the house when his father dies. This means working at the family grocery store, helping his sick mother, and tending his younger brother, David. It’s all too much for the boy at times and occasionally he makes bad decisions.
Toronto author Heather Camlot’s debut novel unfolds in 1946 in an impoverished Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal’s Plateau region northeast of Mount Royal. This is the same time and place mined so vividly by Mordecai Richler in such books as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Young Joey has something of the entrepreneurial spirit of Duddy, but he is also a boy with a conscience, scrupulously honest and loyal to friends. He is frankly a much better role model than Duddy ever was.
The year 1946 is also when Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals, becoming major league baseball’s first black player. Joey’s attempts to deal with stress and become financially successful are frequently compared to the problems Robinson encountered as a baseball trailblazer. These repeated comparisons usually fall flat. Robinson was battling systemic racism; Joey is trying to escape poverty but is stymied by his youth and inexperience. The two situations are not really comparable. Furthermore, young readers unfamiliar with Robinson’s story are given insufficient context to understand the significance of the athlete’s rise in baseball.
The recurring link to Robinson is the major flaw in an otherwise superb story. Joey is a fully developed, complex character one can’t help but love. His friends and family are all believable and interesting. The fast-paced plot is never dull and never predictable. Tension steadily mounts when Joey, in his desperate search for money, unwittingly aligns himself with a gangster who just happens to be the father of his best friend, Ben. Serious trouble looms.
By the end of Clutch, Joey has learned some important life lessons, but he is still 13. One can only hope Camlot writes a sequel – Joey surely has many great adventures ahead.