Beneath the Polish Moon opens with an elderly mother reflecting on her life. The year is 2010, and she’s sitting on her porch, looking up at the Allen-Bradley clock tower. The Milwaukee landmark, which you’ll see on the novel’s cover, is a touchstone for the novel, a symbol of the city today, and of the city as it was decades ago, when the South Side was a Polish stronghold. And you may not realize that it’s also in the novel’s name. For the uninitiated, that big South Side clock tower was once known as the “Polish moon.”
The mother in the prologue, Felicja Karpinski, is considering her long past in the neighborhood, specifically the life of her son, Luke.
“I feared that Luke was too gentle for this world. Looking back, perhaps I misjudged him.”
Her reflections emphasize the blurry line between past and present. She remembers that young, innocent boy and the older man who is only hinted at in cryptic, somewhat menacing mentions like the one above. The prologue’s blurring of past and present extends to the rest of the novel, by Milwaukee-raised author Jake Kaminski.
After the prologue, the first chapter brings us to 1960 Milwaukee and introduces us to Luke Karpinski, an eight-year-old boy buying Batman comics.
The prologue and the first chapter set a somewhat nostalgic tone, with evocative memories of 1960s Milwaukee. If you grew up in that era, the novel should provide the distinct pleasure of recognition and remembrance. And if you didn’t, it’s still interesting to see that bygone era recreated and to note the ways that your childhood was both different and similar.
Chapter two jumps us in time again to Miami in 1974, where Luke is joining the Miami Police Department. As the novel continues, the chapters alternate between ’60s-era Milwaukee and Miami from the ’70s to the present. These Miami chapters inject a different tone into the story. The nostalgia is replaced by something darker. The older Jake is trying to police the city as it develops into a drug trade hub.
As the years pass, he starts working as an undercover cop dealing with the cartel. The re-emergence of a childhood friend links the Milwaukee and Miami chapters, leading gradually toward Jake’s eventual return to Wisconsin.
The Miami chapters, really drive the novel’s plot, but the Milwaukee reader will likely prefer the sketches from the past. Jake’s boyhood is vividly brought to life, and the local details (such as the “Polish moon”), make each chapter a treat for the reader who knows our city.
Jake Kaminski is the pseudonym of a retired police officer, now writer, who is from Milwaukee. Like his title character, Kaminski worked as an undercover cop for many years. This is his second novel. The first, Shadow Wolves, came out in 2020.