Dave at Night: A Departure for Gail Carson Levine

Dave at NightGail Carson Levine is known for writing fairy-tale–inspired children’s books such as Ella Enchanted and The Princess Tales. But you’ll only finds traces of a fairy tale in Dave at Night. Levine has said: “Dave at Night is historical fiction, my only novel without a shred of fantasy.”

Instead, Levine saw Dave at Night as an opportunity to imagine her father’s childhood. Her father had been an orphan at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum on 137th Street and Amsterdam Avenue during the 1920s, but he never spoke of his time there. So after his death in 1986, Levine researched the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and the time period more broadly, thereby giving us Dave at Night.

The story of Dave at Night is told from the perspective of the spirited, trouble-making, eleven-year-old Dave Caros. Dave is living in a Jewish community in the Lower East Side in October 1926 when his only living parent, his father, dies. (Dave’s mother died in childbirth, an event, Dave jokes, resulting from his earliest attempts at making trouble.) Soon after his father’s death, Dave’s brother Gideon goes to live with their Uncle Jack, leaving Dave with their evil stepmother, Ida, who does not waste any time in abandoning Dave at the Hebrew Home for Boys. From the very beginning, Levine does a remarkable job of revealing 1920s New York through the eyes of an impoverished yet sunny boy. Dave marvels at the automobile in which he rides to his father’s funeral, perhaps not altogether aware of what has happened and what will happen.

When he enters the Hebrew Home for Boys for the first time, Dave describes it as colder than outside. Later that day, at lunch, Dave describes the meat he and his peers are served as “gristly,” and the reader begins to see how the boys’ days are tightly regimented, just as the days at the actual Hebrew Orphan Asylum once were. Not to mention the fact that the asylum’s superintendent, Mr. Bloom (a.k.a. Mr. Doom), terrorizes the boys on a daily basis. Levine has an uncanny ability to set detailed scenes, using only an authentically adolescent voice. The action, too, matches the psyche of a daring adolescent boy, as Dave quickly finds a way to slip out of the asylum by night.

Through Dave’s nights out, Levine artfully weaves the history of the Harlem Renaissance—with all its great writers, painters and musicians—into the novel. On his first night out, Dave meets an elderly Jewish man named Solomon Gruber, who takes him to a rent party on 136th Street, claiming to be his grandfather. And it’s not long before Solly begins to actually fill that role in Dave’s mind. At the rent party, Dave befriends a wealthy African American girl named Irma Lee Packer. Dave is mesmerized by Irma Lee’s beauty and kindness, and she and Dave quickly become the best of friends. Although the doom and gloom of the Hebrew Home for Boys may seem to contrast Dave’s colorful nights in Harlem, there are some sunlit moments there. As Dave becomes closer to each of the “elevens” (the orphans of his age), Dave learns the meaning of friendship and loyalty.

It’s with the help of all of his new friends that Dave makes just the right amount of trouble – an amount that might make life at the Hebrew Home for Boys tolerable. Dave at Night does not want for history, introspection, action or character diversity. With much skill, Levine writes a historically accurate novel featuring a round, lovable narrator, a varying plot and a wide array of wicked and endearing characters.

-SD

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5 thoughts on “Dave at Night: A Departure for Gail Carson Levine

  1. SD, I liked how you described the characters as being wicked and endearing. All too often, especially with younger students, boys don’t want to read girls’ books, and vice versa. I think the characters of Dave at Night are developed enough that both boys and girls will enjoy t. That’s one less obstacle removed when in the classroom.-JMV

  2. I really love how Levine incorporated the time period to this fictional story. Bringing in her father’s realistic childhood setting, incorporating the Harlem renaissance time period and important leaders of that movement, and putting it in the mind set of an eleven year old Jewish boy really allows the reader to dive into the various dynamics she addresses. As a huge fan of the Harlem Renaissance as well as the structural and cultural developments of New York City over the years, Levine draws my interests in a dynamic and chaotic story plot. While Dave is a rambunctious character, he brings the reader through as serious of emotions in which we fall in love with him. This compelling narrator and his crazy ways allows the reader to truly fall in love with him and his dedication to get out of his living environment. I truly agree with the description that SD gave within her blog post as it allows for those who have not read it to really understand the character and his surroundings.

    DML

  3. Dave at Night succeeds in being appeasing to readers through its historical display of the Harlem Renaissance, the daily hardships of a preteen orphan, and the clever ways in which he chooses to deal with his adversities. I found the ways in which Dave reacted to the tragedies in his life to be fascinating because he didn’t break from the loss of his parents and his home, or from the abandonment from his stepmother, or from the ill-treatment and conditions of the asylum. I believe that for anyone, especially for an eleven year old, these experiences are harrowing. But in my mind, I kept referring to Dave as “Dave the Brave” because of the clever, constructive and creative ways in which he dealt with his adversities and how he overcame the sting of pain and discomfort they’ve caused him. This, to me, is bravery. For these reasons, I believe that not only will young adult readers be able to relate to Dave’s thought processes and actions, but fall in love with him as an adolescent struggling to survive in the revolutionary era he was in.

    -JES

  4. Hey SD,
    This was a great post! I am replying to your post a couple of months after because I wanted to say that you did such a great job summarizing the important aspects of the novel. Dave at Night was another favorite book this semester because I am from Harlem and I enjoyed reading the book because of the historical context. I don’t see 137th street and Amsterdam the same, I just cannot believe how big the Hebrew Orphan Asylum used to be. I believe this novel may work well for students in Harlem because they might be interested in knowing the history of their neighborhood, I know I did. If not, it’s a great book about never giving up, about forming an unlikely family, and finding acceptance, even when one is rejected. I would love to teach this book in the future. JA

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