Water Street by Patricia Reilly Giff



Giff, Patricia Reilly. Water Street. New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2006. ISBN 9780385730686

Plot Summary

Bird Mallon is about to start her last year of school, the eighth grade, and she has always known that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and be a healer. Thomas Neary has just moved into the apartment above Bird’s with his father who drinks too much and cares for Thomas too little. Thomas writes stories about everything he sees and hears and wants to be a writer one day. At the end of Water street, the Brooklyn Bridge is being built and everyone doubts whether it will be a successful project because it seems so impossible. Bird and Thomas form a special bond as they make choices about their futures and as they learn whether seemingly impossible things can come to pass.

Critical Analysis

Giff does a splendid job of developing her characters and makes them real enough for readers to identify with. Her two main characters, Bird and Thomas, share a friendship that borders on the romantic side and is all too familiar to young people today. Bird lives in a small apartment with her older sister and brother and her parents. Thomas lives in the apartment above them with his father who is out in a tavern more often than he is at home. As a result, Bird’s family invites Thomas into their home for most meals. Sadly, many young readers today will be able to relate with Thomas’s character and hopefully some of them will be able to identify with Bird’s family regarding this situation as well. Bird is a headstrong young lady and Thomas is loyal to a fault. The reader will find herself rooting for both at every turn. Even though the characters in the book are very similar to people today, they also dress, talk, and act like people from the late 1800s. For example, they rent horses from the livery, neighbors can’t afford to send for the doctor, one family catches scarlet fever, clothes are hung out on the line, and all the neighborhood people know each other and know that Bird’s mother is the healer.

The daily lives and struggles of Bird and Thomas as they grow up and decide what they want to do with their lives are displayed in the pages of Giff’s novel. She does not shy away from presenting the often harsh truths and living conditions of the time period. The facts are presented plainly enough for young readers to follow and understand and there is not an overwhelming presence of details and facts. An accurate account of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, its designer and overseer, and the jobs and working conditions is presented in the story, but remains in the background. Also, the history of immigrant life is portrayed well through the living conditions and fact that everyone must work to contribute.

The location of the story is one and the same with the title of the book. The apartment building where Bird and Thomas live is on Water Street and almost all the other events of the story take place on the same street. The Brooklyn Bridge construction can be seen from Thomas’s window as well. The only time Giff’s characters venture off of their street is toward the end when Bird and Thomas head across the river to Manhattan to find Bird’s brother, Hughie, and try to help him. The buildings and their occupants, which are part of the setting themselves, are well described and Giff paints a lovely picture of the places with her words.

Themes of work and friendship are evident throughout the book. Giff makes it clear that hard work got Bird’s family to America from Ireland and Bird is determined to find her calling for work so that she can better herself. Thomas longs for his father to commit to work and take care of him instead of staying out all night imbibing. Bird’s parents remind her and her siblings several times that anything is possible with hard work, otherwise they would still be back in Ireland. Immigrants to the United States in the late 1800s understood the value of hard work and it was important to them, but it is still important to the majority of people today. Friendship is something else that is still largely valued today. People will say and do a lot of things just to try to gain a friend, but the friendship between Bird and Thomas is the type of true friendship which people long for. These two young people share their hopes and dreams with one another and they know that when it really matters, they can count on the other. This is evidenced by Bird’s family having Thomas over for meals and even more so by Thomas’s caring for Bird when she has a traumatic experience on a medical call with her mother and his going to Manhattan with her when Hughie is in trouble.

Giff takes her characters through all four seasons of the year 1875 by dividing the novel into four sections. She relies on a combination of dialogue and narrative to tell her story. The dialogue accurately resembles the speech of the time with words such as “areaway” to describe the area outside their front door and phrases such as Hughie telling Bird,“You’re like herself” to tell her he thinks she’s like their mother. The story about Bird and Thomas and their families is the main focus of the novel and the history is an important component.

There are no notes, citations, or recommendations for further reading in Giff’s book. There is also no mention of research in an author’s note or acknowledgement section, as seems to be common. There are enough facts in the book to suggest that Giff did indeed look up information somewhere, but it seems, as evidenced by the lack of documentation, that the narrative and not the history was the main focus for this book.

This is an enjoyable book that flows nicely and has very likeable characters. The plot drags a little in places, but the relationship between the two main characters makes up for it.

Review Excerpts

Young Hoosier Book Award


“Giff sidesteps predictable situations (for instance, Bird is exposed to scarlet fever but doesn’t catch it). And despite an overabundance of tremulous smiles, straightened shoulders, and brimming eyes, the novel feels more bracing than sentimental, perhaps because Giff makes Bird’s Brooklyn so real you could touch it.” — Horn Book Magazine, September 2006

“ The happily-ever-after ending never denies the harsh struggle; the memory of what drove them from the Old Country is always there, as is the mantra “We have to better ourselves.” A poignant immigration story of friendship, work, and the meaning of home.” — Booklist, August 2006

“Though the plot is somewhat predictable and the likable characters are a bit stereotyped, Giff masterfully integrates the historical material and presents a vivid picture of the immigrant struggle in the 1870s.” — School Library Journal, September 2006


Read the two novels that create the backstory for this novel:

  • Nory Ryan’s Song, ISBN 9780440418290
  • Maggie’s Door, ISBN 9780440415817

Use the following link to read an article about Caisson Disease (which Bird’s brother gets) and discuss this in a health class setting, talking about the dangers


Compare and contrast living conditions in the time of the novel and now

Look for a community member who immigrated to the United States and have them come speak to students about the experience.

Use an Eyewitness to History article to pair with the novel for an American History lesson on the time period.


Explore the History Channel’s website section on the Brooklyn Bridge:


The two main characters spend a significant amount of time deciding what they want to do with their lives. Have students spend some time thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Have them pick one possibility and create a short presentation to share.

Image from Amazon.com, accessed April 1, 2015. Cover art copyright 2006 by Glen Gogh/Glenn Madison


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