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Friday, July 16, 2021

Review of Newark Minutemen

Newark Minutemen: A True 1930's Legend About One Man's Mission to Save a Nation's Soul Without Losing His Own: A Novel
By Leslie K. Barry
Morgan James Publishing, 2020.

If nonfiction history books provide the foundation for knowledge of the past, historical fiction adds the color. Barry's novel paints vibrant strokes of life in Newark, New Jersey during the 1930s. The book traces the rise of the German-American Bund, a Nazi-allied group, and the efforts of the Newark Minutemen to stop them.

The Minutemen, a group of Jewish boxers, served as mob boss Longie Zwillman's enforcers. During this period the group, aided by the FBI, focused on protecting the community against the rise of Nazism in America. Part of that protection involved pummeling Nazis at rallies in the Tri-state region. Eventually it morphed into infiltrating the American Nazi ranks.

The novel is written in first person vignettes primarily from the points of view of a Jewish boxer named Yael, a young German-American woman called Krista, Zwillman, and the leader of the Bund Fritz Kuhn. The description within those vignettes is extremely vivid. and the story is enthralling. Yet, it is not a light read.

The Nazis, as more and more people sadly seem to forget, were bad people who did bad things. Those despicable deeds can be excruciatingly painful to recall. Barry's evocative writing makes reading about those instances all the more difficult.

The tensions between the Minutemen and the Bund provide the background for a forbidden love story. Despite being a central component of the story, it felt like an unnecessary addition to the already fascinating struggle of the Minutemen to defeat Nazism's encroachment into America. And yet, paradoxically, the centrality of this superfluous love story doesn't detract much from the quality of the novel. It's a credit to Barry's ability as a writer that it doesn't.

As striking as Barry's writing is, it isn't perfect. There are moments when it's too good. From Jewish boxer to 17 year old girl to mob boss, each first person account reads like it's by an accomplished novelist- and is quite distinct in tone from the dialogue. In the beginning, the expressive verbs and adjectives create a distracting disconnect between what is being said and who is saying it. But as the suspense picks up, that disconnect gradually vanishes.

As for the dialogue, it seems to fit the characters better than the first person monologues, but the language of the boxers can be a bit stereotypical at times. The word "Palooka" is used just once, but  the dialogue can fall into Palooka-like tropes on occasion.

One last quibble deals with anachronisms. Historical novels are wonderful because good authors include those little nuggets of information that can only be found through extensive research- and Newark Minutemen contains many golden ones- but there are moments when some of them misfire.

One German teen is said to be "drinking the Kool-Aid" (pg. 173). That phrase originated in the aftermath the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, in which hundreds of cult members were forced to drink a poisoned Kool-Aid type of beverage in Jonestown, Guyana. Later, a Jewish boxer is described "as cool as the other side of the pillow" (pg. 217). The origin of this phrase can be traced back to Stewart Scott, of ESPN's SportsCenter fame, who coined it when he first started out in broadcasting in late the 1980s.

While historical novelists are well within their rights to play with facts and chronology, the "drinking the Kool-Aid" and "as cool as the other side of the pillow" lines can prevent a reader from accepting the other interesting bits of historical information. And that would be a shame, because it's clear that the book is well-researched.

Minor issues aside, if you are a fan of Jewish boxers beating up Nazis and working towards saving the United States from fascism, you will enjoy this book. And as a bonus, actual Jewish boxers Nat Arno, Maxie Fisher, his brother Al Fischer, Puddy Hinkes, Abie Bain, and the author's uncle Harry Levine, a New York Golden Gloves champ, are all featured in this tale.

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