Gail 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.