New novel captures a piece of Brooklyn’s past
Brooklyn BookBeat: 'The El' is set in Borough Park in 1936
Brooklyn during the Great Depression, when movie houses like the Loew’s 46th Street Theater sponsored “Dish Nights,” families gathered around radios to hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Fireside Chats” and kids took the trolley to Coney Island, is the time frame in which writer Catherine Gigante-Brown’s novel, “The El,” takes place.
Published by Volossal Publishing, “The El” is a family drama set in Borough Park during a six-month period in 1936. The action centers on the Paradiso family, a large, loving, close-knit Italian-American clan. “They don’t have a lot, but they have each other,” Gigante-Brown, 55, told the Brooklyn Eagle in a phone interview on Thursday.
One of the members of the family, however, is a violent, unpredictable alcoholic and how the other family members deal with that person is a major plot twist in the book. “A lot of people who have read the book have told me that they can relate to it,” the author said.
The book’s title comes from the popular nickname that New Yorkers have for the elevated train tracks that can be found in several neighborhoods. “The El is like a lifeline running through people’s lives. It’s like another character in the book,” Gigante-Brown said.
Gigante-Brown will offer a reading from “The El” at the BookMark Shoppe, a bookstore at 8415 Third Ave. in Bay Ridge, on Sunday, April, 26, at 5 p.m.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Gigante-Brown, who grew up in Bay Ridge and attended Saint Patrick Catholic School and Fort Hamilton High School. “It should be a unique sort of homecoming because I was born in Bay Ridge. Many of my childhood friends from Gelston Avenue plan to come to the event. Parts of the novel even take place in Bay Ridge. It will be a very unique, personal sort of reading.”
The author also has set up a Facebook page dedicated to her book.
Gigante-Brown, an editor and copywriter who lives with her husband and son in Windsor Terrace, has published short stories and poetry in the past and has had her work featured in magazines like Essence, Seventeen, Time Out New York, and The Italian Journal of Wine and Food.
She decided to write the novel when she thought about all of the colorful stories her father used to tell her when she was growing up about his childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn.
“A lot of it is based on stories my father told me growing up. I didn’t want these stories to die with my father,” she told the Eagle.
Her father told her about how he and his friends used to take the trolley to Coney Island. Her father was able to spend the whole day at the seashore with just a nickel. Tales of how women looked forward to “Dish Night” at the Loew’s, when the movie theater would give away free dishes, were also part of her father’s stories about life in the past.
“And the Brooklyn Eagle was a big part of people’s lives,” Gigante-Brown said. “It was the go-to newspaper for everybody in Brooklyn. My grandfather was in the paper several times. He was a machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. When he retired, they wrote about him.”
The Brooklyn Eagle is mentioned “at least a dozen times” in “The El,” Gigante-Brown said.
Gigante-Brown also conducted a great deal of research of Brooklyn in the 1930s to provide background for “The El.”
“I’m a third generation Brooklynite and the book is a love letter to my roots and to my beloved borough,” she said. “As part of the Brooklyn Book Festival, I actually got to read a chapter that was set in the Brooklyn Navy Yard at the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s BLDG 92.”
Gigante-Brown wrote the book in six months, but it took her six years to find a publisher. She never became discouraged by rejections from publishing houses and continued to believe in her book, she said.
Finally, she found a publisher. Volossal published the book on Aug. 1, 2014. “The El” is available in soft cover and in e-book form.
The reaction “The El” was so positive, Gigante-Brown said, she has decided to write a sequel. “People tell me that they want to know what happens to these characters,” she told the Eagle.
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