City Boy by Herman Wouk published in 1948
I was never a boy of eleven growing up in the late '20s in the Bronx, but now I feel I had a front-row seat to the experience as eleven-year-old Herbie Bookbinder - like Edgar from E. L. Doctorow's World's Fair - provides a child-like freshness with sprinkles of adult-like perspective to his view of that world.
With Herbie, you get the childhood day-to-day: playing stick ball (Herbie is horrible at sports - as he notes, he just accepted that he'd be picked last for whatever team and in whatever sport) or begging a dime from your mom for a movie and soda. But also, you see Herbie's wise-beyond-his-years observations: he knows that talking about "The Place" (the Bookbinder Ice company - co-owned, in debt and threatened with a hostile takeover) was what animates his father or recognizing the little cheats the owner of the summer camp - that Herbie all but tricked his parents into sending him to - does to squeeze a little more out of each dollar.
Surprisingly driving the story, though, is "fat" little Herbie's growing interest in girls - most of whom he and, as he says, all eleven-year-old boys, all but, put in a class of untouchables. But to his surprise, he finds a few puzzlingly infatuating to the point of obsession. It's wanting to be with his current obsession - Lucille - that motivates Herbie to cadge summer camp from his cash-strapped parents despite Lucille's on-again-off-again callous treatment of Herbie's affections.
Wouk brings Herbie's 1928 summer-camp world alive to us as we see tightfisted owners trying to control kids and keep costs down while giving them enough fun to convince them and their parents it was all worth it. From the train ride up - singing camp songs - through the horrible meals, the morning bugle wake-ups and the oddly forced competitions, I enjoyed it as a window into the past but with a feeling of relief at not actually having to be there.
While the book is more of a slice-of-life than plot driven, the story does excitingly climax as lazy Herbie - inspired to action in a last desperate attempt to regain Lucille's affections, now directed at the camp's sports hero - concocts a crazy scheme to build an elaborate ride for the camp's annual fair. Herbie's beyond-his-years machinations include taking an unchaperoned trip to New York to execute on a complex crime scheme for an eleven year old trying to obtain money to build the fair's ride. It ends in some timeless lessons about right and wrong and - most importantly - learning about the grey of adult-world morals. It's all a bit nuts, but at that point, you're just along for the trip and rooting for the little "fat" kid to succeed.
And while the plot will surprisingly hold you, for us today - and I'd bet for Wouk's 1948 audience, also - the book is a time capsule where early radio shows, empty lots in the Bronx for kids to play, the aforementioned ice company, ten-cent chocolate "Frappes" and a harsh discipline in school that is stunning (at least to us today) provides an, overall, fun and enlightening window into an earlier time. Kids' worlds were never the "safe" or "innocent" places we sometimes believe they were - Herbie sees plenty of adult deceptions, and worries, and failings - but there was much more of a separation between the two worlds than we have today.
This was Wouk's second novel and, while not up there with his The Caine Mutiny or The Winds of War timeless bestsellers, for a trip back to childhood and back to the 1920s, it's held up very well.