A Bandit’s Tale

A Bandit’s Tale: The Muddled Misadventures of a Pickpocket
by Deborah Hopkinson

Rocoo Zaccaro might be a scoundrel. He was denounced by the leading man of his Southern Italian town. His father disowned him and sold him to go to America with a padrone. Once there, he ended up as a pickpocket. Then he targeted women. And then he ended up in the House of Refuge. So, you’d be excused if you thought him a low-life nothing.

But then again, maybe there’s more going on here. What’s Rocco’s connection with Meddlin’ Mary, the girl determined to help the horses of New York City? What’s his connection to Jacob Riis, the newspaperman with the new invention: a flash camera?

And what does he have to do with the Battle of Bandit’s Roost?

All Rocco asks is that you keep a mind as he tells his story. You might be surprised. Or maybe you’ll be disappointed. Either way, you might learn a thing or two about how a pickpocket gets by, and how New York City was changed forever by just one photograph.

– – –

Hopkinson creates a great rogue’s story in A Bandit’s Tale. Rocco provides narration that reminds me strongly of Antsy Bonano from Neal Shusterman’s The Schwa was Here and Antsy Does Time. (He’s also the protagonist in Ship Out of Luck, but I’ve not read that one. Yet.) He also reminds me much of Cowboy from Newsies. These are good characters to call to mind. Rocco has that tough-guy late 1800’s narration that I find arresting.

I don’t have a lot of experience with this time period of New York City, and even less with the origins of the immigrants that lived there. Hopkinson grabbed me immediately by starting her story in southern Italy, telling us why Rocco came to America. The story continues episodically; while some incidents do feed into the finale of the book, not all do. As Hopkinson herself explains in the backmatter, this book is a picaresque novel. It’s intentionally episodic. (She namechecks Oliver Twist, another story I find myself drawn to. I should really read it instead of just knowing the musical!)

Because of the episodic nature of the plot, Rocco encounters a lot of other characters, and I found every one written to be “true.” I didn’t encounter a “pure bad guy” but people trying to do their best given the circumstances. Yes, some are cruel, but none are cruel for the sake of cruelty. Each person seemed fully formed, and more than one secondary character I could have spent more time with. How about one of the other boys Rocco’s padrone takes in, who has a deft hand with the violin? How about more with Riis, the valiant photographer? (Thankfully, he’s a historical personage who did actually write his autobiography. I think I need to see if my library has it.)

Rocco, the setting, the plot, and the other characters all work well together. I enjoyed the copious notes Hopkinson includes after the conclusion of the story just as much, though. She has notes on the setting, the historical personages, what actually happened in New York City (including her confessions to fudging some of the dates for dramatic purposes). She’s got a page of historical pickpocket slang and several pages of “for further reading.” Teachers need to consider getting this novel just for those extra resources in the back.

Peppered throughout the book are reprints of photographs from the time period, many of them taken by Riis. They’re heartbreaking and perfectly compliment the story.

Yep. This book is well worth your time. Look for it when it comes out April 5, 2016.

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