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The Gift    by Pete Hamill order for
by Pete Hamill
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (1973)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This slim novel is set in 1952 Brooklyn at Christmastime. Its seventeen-year-old protagonist is a sailor, on leave for the holidays, before being shipped to Korea. He has unfinished business to sort out, with his girlfriend Kathleen and with his 'Irish dude' father. The former has sent an 'ambiguous and fearful' letter, while he feels a strong need to connect with the father, whom he loves but 'just never knew if he loved me back.'

Hamill writes lyrically of his hero's homesickness for New York, whose 'subways were a part of home to me, and I loved the sense of penetration they gave me, the roaring, jamming slide into the blackness of the tunnels ... I loved the charging rhythm of the train, its sense of plunge and blur, its violent race to Brooklyn.' His family is poor, his one-legged, ex-Sinn Fein father hanging out at Rattigan's bar across the street from their small apartment, there singing Irish songs late into the night, 'the sad, gay song of a man I did not know.'

Kathleen is with someone else, Pete meets another 'bright, smiling girl', connects with old acquaintances in bars, attends a party. He 'retreated into the city, walking the streets, holing up in movie houses and bookstores'. He decorates a tree of sorts with his younger siblings, and finds money to help his mother. Then Pete heads to Rattigan's, to see his father 'in that place where he truly lived ... the place where he boasted and lied and laughed, and was forgiven everything.' His father sings. Pete crosses the divide of culture and years to join him, and wins his approval.

The Gift is a beautiful story, wonderfully written, and full of nostalgia for a childhood of comic books, adventure stories, Audrey Hepburn movies, and a Christmas season poor in material things, but rich in community and caring. Hamill portrays a young man digging into his roots and assuring their strength, before he heads off to war and independent adult life. It's a quick, heartwarming read, perfect for the season.

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