How To Find Your Way in the Dark is a prequel to Norwegian by Night, Derek Miller’s 2013 novel, which won awards in Crime and First Novel categories. In Norwegian by Night, Sheldon Horowitz, the eighty-two-year-old hero, is dying as the book ends. In How To Find Your Way in the Dark, Sheldon Horowitz is twelve years old as the book begins, and he exhibits many of the same traits as his senior self. Like the little boy that Sheldon rescues in Norwegian by Night, the book begins with Sheldon mourning his mother, who died an unnatural death. Like his senior self, Sheldon doesn’t allow his strong moral conscience to prevent him from taking illegal measures to achieve his goals. And, like his senior self, the teenage Sheldon can make split-second decisions in the face of danger.
Derek Miller is a deft plotter who juggles characters and settings with the same daring spirit as his hero, with just a few wild improbabilities and loose ends here and there. The story mostly takes place during the 1940s. The young, orphaned Sheldon falls under the influence of his cousin Abe, who is obsessed with antisemitism and the Nazi menace that America is ignoring. Spending the summer of 1941 as a bellhop at Grossinger’s, Sheldon works out a complicated scheme of revenge on his father’s killer while his best friend, Lenny Bernstein — not the famous one — delivers crowd-pleasing, comedic monologues at various resorts but gets fired because his routines are too topically Jewish. The threat of impending war looms in the background.
Derek Miller is skilled at drawing personalities and using minor players to enliven his craft. He gives his secondary characters enough color to make the reader notice them for themselves, not just as players in Sheldon’s drama. The lead-up to World War II permeates the action almost to the end of the book, when the war ends and Sheldon’s future is set up to play out in Norwegian by Night. Readers learn about Canada’s early efforts to defend England, including details about aircraft bombers, as well as technical aspects of several types of guns, and the history of the Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut. This kind of writing defies gender norms because the characters are men who love their toys but who can also express their emotions. It’s a wide-ranging story with some minor plot points left hanging, but How To Find Your Way in the Dark reads like a winner.
Beth Dwoskin is a retired librarian with expertise in Yiddish literature and Jewish folk music.