Berries (short for Bertrand) Goodman’s family lives in a small apartment in Manhattan–small even for Manhattan–and with three children and two parents, there simply is no room. Berries and his older brother Hal share the one bedroom, their parents sleep on a convertible sofa in the living room and two year old Jennifer sleeps in a crib in the front hall. It isn’t until Jennifer learns to climb out of her crib at five o’clock one Sunday morning that the Goodmans decide they need a larger place to live.
Unfortunately, all the larger apartments near the family’s original home are too expensive as they’re in newer buildings, so the family decides to cast their net wider and look into buying a home in the suburbs. Even then, all the houses are too expensive, so they talk the owner of the smallest and least repaired house into renting them the house with an option to buy at the end of two years, and settle in. Even more unfortunately from Berries’ perspective, the only kid nearby is not only eleven (two years older than he) but a girl, and a showoffy one at that.
The summer in a strange community is a dull one for Berries, even though he eventually does begin to spend time with Sandra; absent all the familiar things in Manhattan, such as a delicatessen, streets crowded with sights and people and even the family car (which the father takes to the train station as the first part of his commute), all the family finds things duller than they’d expected. Fall brings school for Berries and a new job for his mother as a real estate agent. Unfortunately, school and job bring the family up against an uncomfortable truth: the community is a divided one. Not against African-Americans but against Jews; although there are not so many as in New York City, where the Jewish holidays merit school closures along with the Christian ones, the town in which they now live has two neighborhoods to which Jews are steered when househunting. Not only is redlining an accepted part of real estate practice in the area, gentiles casually mouth all the standard prejudices–Jews have all the money, and more.
Berries befriends Sidney, the lone Jewish kid in his school, as both boys are loners; he sees nothing strange about this as many of his friends in New York were Jewish, but Sandra and her family are distrustful. In the book’s denouement, Sandra taunts Sidney until he takes her dare to jump the deep culvert…and falls into it, seriously injuring himself. Sidney’s parents cut off all contact with Berries, Sandra and their families, and leave the community shortly after Sidney leaves the hospital. The Goodman family returns to New York after their lease runs out, and are somewhat shamefacedly glad to be going back to the familiarity of Manhattan.
The story is actually a flashback: the book begins after the Goodmans’ return to New York, with Berries and Sidney meeting in Manhattan after Sidney’s decided to “run away” from his parents to his brother’s house in New Jersey. I have to appreciate a book that takes on prejudice in a middling subtle way for a kids’ book–not so much in the opinions expressed by the characters living in the suburbs but in Berries’ reaction to the differences; he doesn’t begin to even really comprehend the problem until he realizes that not only will his school not close for Rosh Hashonah, Sidney is the only student who stays home. Although it strikes me as a slip on Neville’s part that Berries has to ask what Rosh Hashonah is when Sidney mentions he’s staying home for a holiday a few weeks after the school year starts: surely Berries would know this if two of his best friends in Manhattan are Jewish?
In the intervening forty-five years, I suspect that writing style has changed enough that kids today might not quite get it, although there are still plenty of families moving from cities to suburbs and vice-versa. What to read next? Well, Neville’s better known book is It’s Like This, Cat, about a twelve-year-old boy living in Manhattan, who takes refuge with his next door neighbor and her many cats. Judy Blume’s another possibility; her books are from approximately the same time period, and about kids in approximately the same age range as Berries.