As a tribute to her Italian American family, "Elizabeth Street" by author Laurie Fabiano works for the most part as a loving portrait of her great-grandmother and a bona fide look at the turn-of-the century southern Italian immigrant's journey from a land of taxation and poverty to the tenements of Manhattan. As Fabiano's tale is a fictionalized account of her family's real life experience in Little Italy, the trials and tribulations of assimilating in a foreign urban environment and the negative aspects associated with the unsolicited attention of the Black Hand towards any shopkeeper, it succeeds in portraying strong characters with authentic motives. If it fails, it does so only with a haphazard interjection of the modern thoughts of the author in presenting her ancestral accolade while attempting to understand the older world's sensibilities in terms of what has become commonplace in today's dynamic.
Giovanna, Fabiano's main character, stands formidably as the epitome of the Southern Italian grand dame. Like other such women of this time and mindset, she steamrolls along crushing both her pain and happiness with the sheer momentum of moving towards the goal of family first amidst the desire to serve others as a competent midwife. Fabiano crafts her from a vein of resourceful and strong clay that strikes a resonant and loyal cord of familiarity within me--so much so that I thought I was reading the story of someone with the strength, perseverance and resilience of my own grandmother. Indeed Giovanna represents the brave and true women who left their homeland, frightened but never speaking aloud their fear, traveling on unsteady ground yet grounding all those around them with a sheer force of will that at times denied their femininity. My grandmother, Emily ruled her roost with the firm hand of the quintessential matriarch--nine brothers sought her counsel as her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren assimilated into distinct portraits of the American mainstream. Never once did she relate any feelings of disjointedness or alienation--her journey to America remains a private passage from point A to point B. Once she landed on these shores, she forgot her past and as an American never spoke about Italy or her hardships there.
Those of us who share an Italian American heritage recognize Fabiano's characters as universal; we cringe at the association of the Black Hand or the Mafia when we think of the hard work and intense labor of our forefathers who wanted nothing more than to make an honest living in a new land and contributed much to the modernization, growth and expansion of New York City in the early half of the twentieth century. Depictions of Italian Amerians as swaggering Soprano-like gangsters slaps many of us in the face as our forefathers moved heaven and hell to disassociate from that image. As fully assimilated Americans who proudly associate being Italian with images of sun baked Tuscan villages and the distinctive art and architecture of Renaissance Venice and Florence, we know nothing of the poverty or second-class citizenry of the people indigenous to the south of Rome. Classified as a different race upon their entry into the United States via Ellis Island, the Southern Italians, educated or not, were grouped into one teeming mass that struggled for whiteness. Fabiano's book depicts just the tip of this iceberg and focuses instead on her family's resistance to the monetary demands of the Black Hand resulting in the eventual kidnapping of her then four-year-old grandmother. With this in mind, I suggest that to a degree Fabiano sells out--deciding to zero in on the very salable Mafia/Gangster connection that has been the plague of Italian Americans from the get go (the blurb from Tom Brokaw on the book's cover markets this title in connection with Puzo's The Godfather). A story depicting the interrelationships between the then family members as well as those from the present day may have told a far gentler tale, but I believe it would ring truer with characters that would resonate far longer than the last page of this book.
Nonetheless, Fabiano achieves her goal--depicting the time and place with great accuracy and peopling her thoroughly researched world with strong characters that could be members of any Italian American family. From a literary standpoint, she completes two thirds of her task with success. The story flails a bit in terms of the relationship between Giovanna and her second husband--they grow together out of necessity and that is understood as love comes later. More examples of their intimacy would have helped the reader not only digest this idea but achieve a sense of intense satisfaction and emotional completeness rather than just the experience of a rushed ending after the kidnapping interlude came to a close. This reviewer got the feeling that Fabiano was not satisfied with capturing the strong Giovanna on paper; she collected so many stories and research documents that were just too good to put aside. Her inclusion of these documented events makes a good historical account. However accurate, they seem as if they were added just because they were there not because they enhanced the overall connection with the main character. Less background information would have affixed an additional layer to an already compelling character and carried the story into the realms of literature rather than family chronicle.
Bottom line? Laurie Fabiano's "Elizabeth Street" recreates early twentieth century Little Italy to perfection. Her main character exhibits strength and the stubborn perseverance for which all Calabrians--myself included--are noted. Her novel succeeds in honoring her family and the thousands of other families who bravely came to a new land, leaving everything familiar behind them. Technically, the story of Giovanna's growth and realization of her dreams and desires becomes bogged down with the overly detailed narration of daughter Angelina's abduction. The rushed ending and intermittent interjection of great-granddaughter Anna's assimilated American voice detracts from rather than fleshes out the idea of respect and understanding for another generation. Nevertheless recommended for Italian Americans along with Were You Always an Italian?: Ancestors and Other Icons of Italian America for a sense of greater understanding and admiration for those who came before us. Diana Faillace Von Behren "reneofc"
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Diana Faillace Von Behren (reneofc)
I like just about anything. My curiosity tends to be insatiable--I love the "finding out" and the "ah-ha" moments. Usually I review a book or film with the … more
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Amazon Exclusive: Maria Laurino Reviews Elizabeth Street
Maria Laurinois the author of the memoirsOld World Daughter, New World Mother, a meditation on contemporary feminism, and the national bestseller,Were You Always an Italian?, an exploration of ethnic identity. Laurino's journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including theNew York TimesandThe Nation, and her essays have been widely anthologized. Read her exclusive guest review ofElizabeth Street:
When readers first meet Giovanna Costa, the protagonist of Elizabeth Street, she is a young woman about to get married in the small Italian fishing village of Scilla, situated between the Calabrian coast and Sicily’s Aeolian Islands. The town is home to the ancient story of Scylla, the once beautiful nymph turned mythical monster that devoured sailors trying to navigate the Straits of Messina. Midway through Laurie Fabiano’s page-turning novel, which is based on her own family history, Giovanna has landed in the New World but finds herself lodged between Scylla and Charybdis. She arrives grief stricken in New York after her beloved husband, Nunzio, has been killed on a badly managed construction site in Brooklyn. Eventually she will settle into an arranged second marriage, but her troubles continue to multiply. Giovanna will be forced to combat the nefarious forces of the Black Hand, the precursor to the Italian-American Mafia, which has threatened to tear apart her new family.