Trenton: Past glimpses, present complexities
February 03, 2011

by Susan Branch

There’s a missing word that book reviewers and literary critics alike could use to describe certain books. Perhaps “impetus” would be the best choice to fill this gap. It’s the quality that forces readers to keep turning the page, reading the next page, then the next chapter. And it’s a fact that many well-written books, even those with interesting characters and complex plots, don’t have impetus.

On the other hand, there are books, like Trenton, that may be flawed in some ways, but that force the reader to keep going, even if it means staying up way too late. This is more surprising because this genre-bender has many characters, a complicated plot, and covers centuries with aplomb.

In the year 1763, Penny Scott, a young child, is orphaned after an attack by Indians on her remote upstate New York homestead. Years later, she’s rescued from drowning in the Delaware river by Edward, a son of New Jersey landowner John Hart, who goes on to sign the Declaration of Independence (he is a kinsman of one of the authors). The story shifts to Hart’s family, and their acquaintances, who have varied experiences during the Revolutionary War. Edward’s participation in Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and the Battle of Trenton are graphically brutal...John Hart plays an important role in the political deliberations of the day and faces betrayal and persecution by the British and their Hessian allies.

The scene suddenly shifts to a funeral in modern Trenton, an urban area plagued with the problems of our time, including crime and corruption. Not only is there a funeral, but the dead man, the Reverend Hollis Markham, has been murdered. Markham was a leader in the African American community; his son-in-law is a leading real estate developer, and he was the friend of most of the local and state politicians. Yet the police don’t seem able to find his murderer.

Readers are privy to scenes of civic leaders and elected officials plotting to win the struggle for more power. But the story also follows the lives of the Almas, a family of Cuban émigrés--from Raul, the grandfather, who founded a lawn care business, to his son Luis, a war hero, and to Tina and Roberto, Luis’ children, both still in school, and facing racism and bullying.. When street crime strikes the little family, it turns their American Dream in a different direction.

Tina is involved with a young African American teenager, Darius, who leads her into a new interest in history, specifically New Jersey history. But his many links to the unsavory gang life of the ‘Hood mean that there are problems ahead for both of them. Darius is especially fascinated by the decrepit Eagle Tavern, which dates back to early Trenton history.

There are, seemingly, many loose ends in the first part of the book, but watch closely: These are sometimes unexpectedly resolved in the second part, even without the characters’ knowledge. But the alert reader will realize the connections (however improbable they may be).

There are valuable civics lessons and history contained in these pages. The characters also often show the lack of complexity that one sometimes finds in fiction written for younger readers. In fact, except for the villains, the characters are clean-cut and given to noble sentiments. Unfortunately there’s too much sex in these pages to recommend this book to school-aged readers, who might otherwise be its most likely audience.

Title - Trenton: A Novel
Author-John P. Calu & David A. Hart
Publisher - Plexus Publishing (1st ed., Oct. 4, 2010)
320 pp.
$24.95 (hardcover) at
ISBN-10: 0937548669
ISBN-13: 978-0937548660

To get the "flavor" of Trenton, NJ go here.

Susan Branch is a graduate of Rutgers University, Newark College of Arts and Sciences, and the Kent State University School of Library and Information Science. She has been a newspaper and magazine editor and a reference librarian, and has contributed to professional journals and reference books. She resides in Columbus, Ohio.

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