Not a Nickel to Spare

Do you have any idea how many times I’ve read this book? So many! I don’t even like it all that much, to be honest. I just keep reading it and reading it in an effort to recap it and somehow never get up the energy to do so. I own this book and it’s taken me forever to get around to it, which should tell you just how much I don’t enjoy it.

Not A Nickel to Spare: The Great Depression Diary of Sally Cohen, Toronto, Ontario, 1932, Perry Nodelman, 2007.

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Here’s the thing: this is overall a really well-written book, and Nodelman is a professor of children’s literature and the editor of Canadian Children’s Literature, and has written textbooks on the subject. There are parts of this book that I adore—it’s a terrifically evocative picture of Toronto during a certain place and time. But (and you knew there was a “but” in there because I can’t unequivocally like anything ever)…something about it just does not work for me. Part of it is because so much of the book is focused on Sally’s cousin Benny—overwhelmingly so, to the point where it really seems like he just wanted to write a book about Benny and the Christie Pits riots but got roped into writing this instead. And part of it is because it doesn’t ring true as a realistic depiction of a preteen girl. I don’t think it’s because he’s a man, since I think any good writer is capable of writing a persuasive character regardless of whether they can personally identify with them, but it seems like it’s because he just was more interested in writing about Benny!

One thing that is very well done in this book is the depiction of antisemitism in Toronto in the early part of the 20th century. A lot of writing about Jewish culture in Canada tends to focus on Montreal, which is interesting, but there isn’t a lot of focus on Jewish culture in the rest of Canada, which this book does spectacularly. And another thing I enjoy is that it’s about a large family with a large extended family, but it’s not a closely-knit one where everyone gets along with each other all the time. As much as I enjoyed books like that as a kid, where everyone has a million cousins and aunts and uncles, it’s a nice breath of fresh air to see a kids’ book where the families aren’t all up in each other’s business allllll the time!

So Sally, our protagonist, is eleven years old and lives in Toronto with her parents and her five sisters, of which she is just in the middle. She doesn’t get along with all of them, likes to read and listen to the radio, and hates spending her summers looking after her two younger sisters, Molly and Hindl. As we start, it’s July and she’s going to the beach with her family and some cousins and aunts and uncles, but the beach has a sign saying “No Jews or Dogs Allowed.” And as they’re leaving her father accidentally backs the truck into a limousine driven by a goy, and there’s a big to-do and everyone is upset and that pretty much sets the tone for the whole book.

While the Cohens certainly aren’t by any means wealthy, there’s usually enough for all of them to eat with her father and two oldest sisters working. Their cousins, the Applebaums, are much worse off—including Benny, who’s always running away from his alcoholic dad and trying to work to help out the family. They scrape together the money so Sally can go to Wasaga Beach with her sister Sophie and Sophie’s friend, where Sally is horrified to find her sister eating bacon and going to dance clubs with goy men. There’s even one Sophie is particularly interested in, which Sally thinks is a horrible idea.

Later that summer, Sally’s older sister Dora takes her to the Ex to see the sights, and they see Benny and his sisters working at a bathing tank—Sally is horribly embarrassed to be related to them, “even though I don’t know them very well…we hardly ever see them.” But they’re much harder up than Sally’s family, and Benny is constantly going on about how everyone in Toronto are anti-Semites and they make it hard for Jews to earn a living.

In the fall things go sideways—Sophie’s secret engagement to her goy young man falls apart, and then Sally’s father has to go to court, and then he doesn’t have any more seasonal work and he is out on the streets looking just like everyone else. Then he winds up in jail since he can’t pay the fine, and they have to ask Benny’s father, Sally’s Uncle Bertzik, for the money—he owns a sweatshop where Sophie and Dora and Gert all work, and he is wealthier than the rest of them. Sally’s father finally gets a job and things ease a little bit, and in December Benny makes Sally go with him on a walk wearing her new hand-me-down boy’s coat. That’s how Benny gets the idea of how Sally can sneak into a wrestling exhibition—dressed as a boy! Sally is humiliated, but Benny is all for the plan.

You know, I’m not all that keen on how Benny is portrayed in this book. For one thing, it seems like he’s the focus of a lot of the narrative (I opened to a random two pages, and “Benny” appears nine times and “he” [referring to Benny] sixteen times), and he spends most of his time there forcing Sally to do things she doesn’t really want to do. There’s a little bit of lip service to “oh I get so boooored these things are interesting I guess,” but I still don’t like it.

Anyway, they go to the wrestling, and Sally hates it, of course. Then Benny forms a “band” with his friends, and Sally is jealous that he gets to do that while she doesn’t even get picked for the Christmas concert at school. He talks Sally into helping carry things for the band while in her boy’s coat. Again. He keeps trying to convince her that Hitler is going to ruin everything for Germany and Jews in general, but Sally listens to her parents and everyone else instead, who are all saying that Hitler is just a fashion and won’t be in power long. “It can’t really be that bad in Germany, can it?” They have a huge fight about it and Sally gives him the silent treatment for a while, until she can’t any more because she’s so worried about him, because he’s working for a bootlegger.

“I’m beginning to think that Benny may be right…there was a policeman walking behind us….then the policeman came right up and kicked me in the behind and said ‘Move over, you no-good little kike. Do you think you own the sidewalk?’ Those are his exact words. I will remember them forever…I wasn’t angry, just humiliated.” This is really where the book shines—Sally doesn’t understand exactly why everyone hates the Jews so much, and even though she’s pretty sure that nothing like what’s happening in Germany could happen in Canada, she still worries about it. Even though there are rallies in Toronto against Hitler’s actions, and despite the government attempting to pass laws to protect the Jews, nothing seems to really matter.

Sally’s father loses his job again, and her sister Gert, who’s only sixteen, gets a boyfriend that none of them really like and is constantly sneaking out to go see him. Then in June again Benny starts going to rallies—first one for unemployed people where a riot starts and Benny gets knocked around. He gets Sally to go with him to a protest the next month, and Sally says how exciting it is, all the while saying she must be completely crazy to like it so much. They go to an Orange Parade, and then Benny tells her he’s going to go to a gang fight between a Jewish gang and a gang called the Swastika Club. She tries to talk him out of it, but she can’t, and off Benny goes with the rest of the Jewish boys. “If Benny’s going, so am I….I’m going to wear the pants and go on the streetcar…I am still scared, but I have to do it. I have to.”

She does go, and it’s petrifying, but she manages to find Benny and stop him from fighting. Things calm down a little, and Benny goes with Sally to a softball game, and the Swastika Club shows up there too—there’s a big fight and Sally is caught in the middle of it. Benny says he won’t stop going, but Sally can’t anymore—it’s too dangerous. But Sally goes to the Pits by herself to see the game, and it ends up in a riot as well, and Benny finds Sally there and tells her to get out right away. He packs her into a car so she can get away, and all she can think about is how afraid she is for Benny, who stayed behind in all the fighting.

Benny makes it out OK, with only a few bruises, and even though Sally’s father is livid with him for participating, Sally thinks “maybe it would have been better to just stay out of it and be safe. But would it really be safe? Can you be safe anywhere when people hate you so much for just being Jewish? Shouldn’t you try to do something about it? Maybe not fighting, but something.”

In the epilogue, we find out that Sally eventually gets married to Harvey, one of Benny’s friends in the band, and Benny dies in Dieppe in 1942. Sally and Harvey have a few kids and relocate to Edmonton, while the rest of her sisters marry and stay in Toronto all their lives.

Rating: C. There’s so much I do like about this book—it’s just chockablock with details about food and schools and life and everything else. Which is great. And as I mentioned before, I love how much it doesn’t focus on the family—obviously Sally’s immediate family is a huge part of her life, but she’s really just close with her one cousin and none of the others, and not everyone in the family gets along, which is so great and realistic.

But overall it just doesn’t work for me. It’s more a novel about Benny than Sally—Sally seems like an ancillary character in her own book! We don’t get a fantastic sense of Sally’s growth—everything is focused on Benny and his adventures and his efforts. Sally’s just along for the ride, which I don’t really like. I just feel like it could really have been done so much better—and it’s not bad! It’s a frustrating experience to read. Some of it is so good, but then there are such utterly simplistic parts that it’s almost an insult to the reader. It’s tricky to go from these complex concepts about Sally being afraid of what’s coming, and her family struggling with money and relationships, to the epilogue—“It made Sally very angry.” Well, okay. Certain parts of this book definitely feel phoned in.

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