Clutch by Heather Camlot

Whenever people talk about Pa, they call him a real kind man, a real mensch. He’d give anyone store credit. You don’t have to be a millionaire businessman like Simon Bernstein to know that letting customers walk out with free groceries is a terrible money-making strategy. I’m definitely sure it’s the reason we’re trapped in this dump of a neighbourhood.

June, 1946. Jackie Robinson has just started playing for the Montreal Royals. On the other side of the city, the pressure is on in another way for Joey Grosser. His dad has just died, and Joey has big plans to get himself, his mum, and his little brother out of the Plateau.

We’re not going to be trapped here much longer. My bar mitzvah may not be until October, but I became a man the minute Pa dropped dead. It was living in this dump that killed him, I know it. But it’s not going to get us, too.

Forget about kindness. Forget about credit. We’re doing things my way now. I’m gonna get us the money and get out of here — fast. Away from the rats and the horse poop and the garbage. Away from the poor folks on De Bullion on the east side of Park Avenue, and over with the rich folks in Westmount on the west side.

Joey has goals. He also has a lot of anger at his pa for dying and leaving them. And for leaving them poor. Joey isn’t a hard sell when his best friend’s dad comes around, offering to help, encouraging Joey’s best business instincts.

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Determined and quick-witted, Joey is a bold protagonist-narrator, and a force to be wary of. Fortunately, he is surrounded by kinder people with their own goals: little brother David, baseball-mad and determined to be the next Jackie Robinson. Ben, his best friend. Shelly, whose father couldn’t save Joey’s, and who is studying for her and Joey’s b’nai mitzvah. His mother.

These are not easy times. People need kindness.

Jackie Robinson’s early months as a professional player form the background for Joey’s story. They also serve as a lens through which Joey and other characters view their lives: can I be like Jackie? Is this person misjudged for past errors, the way Jackie is misjudged by prejudiced persons? The baseball story never takes over Joey’s narrative; this is a book with but not about Jackie Robinson; but chapter headings, David’s enthusiastic reporting of the latest baseball news, even Dr. Richter’s advice make plain how much one man’s professional struggle matters to and informs the dreams and perspectives of hundreds (thousands) of “ordinary” folk.

As the summer wears on and Joey’s troubles pile up, the community closes around him, much as he tries to push it away. I particularly liked the conversations Joey has with his mother and with old Mr. Friedman. And the non-conversations he has with Ben.

I knew he’d avoid the question, but at least I asked.

Clutch is a close and compelling look at one small family within a small community, part of a larger community still struggling to find its feet after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust, finding meaning in the triumphs of an underdog hero and in embracing the connections that make us who we are.

Recommended.

The author’s interview at the end of the story is lovely.