By – August 22, 2022

It’s 1975, and thir­teen-year-old Joey Good­man is spend­ing the sum­mer at his grand­par­ents’ declin­ing kosher hotel, the St. Bonaven­ture, in Atlantic City, New Jer­sey. Joey some­times feels for­got­ten as the third of four broth­ers in an oth­er­wise lov­ing and live­ly extend­ed fam­i­ly. When he’s not help­ing out at the hotel as an unpaid wait­er-in-train­ing, Joey explores the board­walk, a land­scape that is shift­ing now that gam­bling has been legal­ized. Casi­nos will soon pop­u­late the area, threat­en­ing old­er busi­ness­es like the St. Bonaven­ture and alter­ing Joey’s future.

When the teen encoun­ters a group of local mob­sters who seem par­tic­u­lar­ly impressed with his Skee-Ball abil­i­ties, his sum­mer plans are irrev­o­ca­bly changed. The boss, Artie Bish­op, takes a lik­ing to Joey and soon offers him the oppor­tu­ni­ty to chap­er­one his vis­it­ing teenage daugh­ter, Melanie. Although Joey feels con­flict­ed about these new con­nec­tions, which require him to lie to his fam­i­ly, he’s also enticed by the mon­e­tary agree­ments that afford him more than enough mon­ey to pur­chase the cam­era he’s been eye­ing. Plus, Joey can’t help but feel proud to have earned the trust and appre­ci­a­tion of some­one like Artie. Despite know­ing that things are def­i­nite­ly seedy behind the scenes, Joey finds him­self becom­ing fur­ther embroiled in the group’s activ­i­ties. When he unwit­ting­ly involves the St. Bonaven­ture and puts his fam­i­ly in harm’s way, he must come to terms with his decep­tions, choic­es, and true loyalties.

Joey’s Jew­ish iden­ti­ty is insep­a­ra­ble from the sto­ry, in large part because his fam­i­ly is obser­vant and prac­tic­ing. The book also touch­es on oth­er aspects of Jew­ish life, like Joey’s expe­ri­ences with anti­semitism and his thought-pro­vok­ing insights and ques­tions about reli­gion and God.

Although some of the predica­ments Joey faces are not typ­i­cal teen expe­ri­ences, his voice feels authen­tic, and read­ers will empathize with his strug­gles and inner mono­logue as he adapts to a chang­ing world — and the detailed set­ting of Atlantic City dur­ing the sev­en­ties adds a com­pelling layer.

Filled with mys­tery, may­hem, and mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships, this fast-paced his­tor­i­cal nov­el will cap­ture any reader’s attention.

Jil­lian Bietz stud­ied library tech­nol­o­gy and research skills and cur­rent­ly works in the library sys­tem. She is a book review­er for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and Kirkus Review Indie. Jil­lian lives in South­ern California.

Discussion Questions

Peri­od fic­tion set in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry is tricky for younger read­ers; the book must bal­ance the strange and the famil­iar much more del­i­cate­ly than works for adult read­ers. The book can­not rely on the pre-pack­aged pow­ers of wide­spread nos­tal­gia, nor on the unde­ni­able attrac­tion of, say, Arthuri­an Eng­land. And yet, the shores of Atlantic City can be as cap­ti­vat­ing as the ram­parts of a medieval cas­tle — when described by the right author. 

Like­wise, the char­ac­ters need to be of-a-time,” with anti­quat­ed appetites and abil­i­ties (yearn­ing for a Kodak Insta­mat­ic, say, or adept at Skee-Ball), and yet the char­ac­ter must feel like some­one the read­er could know, would like to know — maybe even is.

The book would need to mar­ry the set­ting with a plot that could not hap­pen any­where else, at any oth­er time, and yet feels like a reflec­tion of the young read­ers’ very own worlds. And it must spin a sto­ry full of larg­er-than-life char­ac­ters: Mafia gang­sters, say, or thug­gish hench­men, or tooth­pick-chew­ing toughs…and yet must bur­row into the heart of what makes ado­les­cence so uni­ver­sal­ly painful: feel­ing unap­pre­ci­at­ed, invis­i­ble, powerless.

Sta­cy Nock­owitz does all of these things in Prince of Steel Pier. Joey Good­man is like many oth­er scrawny Jew­ish pro­tag­o­nists who get in over their heads (in this case, babysit­ting” the daugh­ter of a New Jer­sey Mafia boss), con­ceal too much from the only peo­ple who can help them (in this case, his large and bick­er­ing fam­i­ly), and then must face painful truths and accept help from unlike­ly places. What is remark­able about this book, though, set in 1970s Atlantic City, is how cap­ti­vat­ing the sto­ry is, how com­pelling the char­ac­ters, and how the smell of salt water taffy and rot­ting fish serves as the back­drop for a deep dive into the mean­ing of cul­tur­al con­ti­nu­ity, of sur­vival. When the world is chang­ing in a way that the old gen­er­a­tion can­not resist, as it did for the now-fad­ed hotels on the Board­walk, how can the young gen­er­a­tion find roots down in the cig­a­rette-lit­tered sands, and also wings in some new form of com­mu­ni­ty, fam­i­ly, Jew­ish­ness not yet dis­cov­ered? The Prince of Steel Pier asks these ques­tions and responds to them with humor and depth.

This book touch­es on anti­semitism, on the pain of aging, and death, and it does not shy away from show­ing both the won­ders and the hor­rors of liv­ing in a large family.

The book is at once a fairy tale, as the name sug­gests, and yet, it feels so real, so gen­uine, that even read­ers too young to know the heft of a Skee Ball will find them­selves long­ing for a vis­it to Steel Pier.