Smalltime: Book summary and reviews of Smalltime by Russell Shorto


A Story of My Family and the Mob

by Russell Shorto

Smalltime by Russell Shorto X
Smalltime by Russell Shorto
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Book Summary

Family secrets emerge as a best-selling author dives into the history of the mob in small-town America.

Best-selling author Russell Shorto, praised for his incisive works of narrative history, never thought to write about his own past. He grew up knowing his grandfather and namesake was a small-town mob boss but maintained an unspoken family vow of silence. Then an elderly relative prodded: You're a writer―what are you gonna do about the story?

Smalltime is a mob story straight out of central casting―but with a difference, for the small-town mob, which stretched from Schenectady to Fresno, is a mostly unknown world. The location is the brawny postwar factory town of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The setting is City Cigar, a storefront next to City Hall, behind which Russ and his brother-in-law, "Little Joe," operate a gambling empire and effectively run the town.

Smalltime is a riveting American immigrant story that travels back to Risorgimento Sicily, to the ancient, dusty, hill-town home of Antonino Sciotto, the author's great-grandfather, who leaves his wife and children in grinding poverty for a new life―and wife―in a Pennsylvania mining town. It's a tale of Italian Americans living in squalor and prejudice, and of the rise of Russ, who, like thousands of other young men, created a copy of the American establishment that excluded him. Smalltime draws an intimate portrait of a mobster and his wife, sudden riches, and the toll a lawless life takes on one family.

But Smalltime is something more. The author enlists his ailing father―Tony, the mobster's son―as his partner in the search for their troubled patriarch. As secrets are revealed and Tony's health deteriorates, the book become an urgent and intimate exploration of three generations of the American immigrant experience. Moving, wryly funny, and richly detailed, Smalltime is an irresistible memoir by a masterful writer of historical narrative.

8 black-and-white illustrations

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Media Reviews

"Historian Shorto vividly portrays the lives of farm-team mobsters, among them his own ancestors...A lively addition to the history of Italian American immigration and its discontents." - Kirkus, starred review

"Shorto presents a fascinating institutional history of small-town organized crime and a moving family saga with equal amounts of detail and heart. Mob history lovers will especially enjoy this colorful account." - Publishers Weekly

"Russell Shorto's Smalltime draws a convincing portrait of a time when Italian Americans weren't permitted to live in certain neighborhoods or rise too high in the political firmament. This remembrance of his grandfather's and great-uncle's lives―of slots and pinball machines, 'tip seals,' 'skeeched dice,' and places like the Melodee Lounge and City Cigar―mixes great history and lovely, lingering memories: 'Long conversations about spaghetti sauce and aunts who kissed you on the lips: those were the ways we were Italian.'" - Francis Ford Coppola

"Shorto tells us the story of a small-town, smalltime mob, but, much more than that, the story of an American family over three generations. By turns tender, poignant, and unsparing." - Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd

"Russell Shorto is a magnificent writer and Smalltime is a delicious story. A world so vividly rendered, you will find it hard to leave." - Adriana Trigiani, author of Tony's Wife

"Smalltime is a big pleasure―an emotionally astute, deeply personal work of family and cultural history." - Tom Perrotta, author of The Leftovers and Mrs. Fletcher

"Russell Shorto, one of our most celebrated narrative historians, is expert at mining history for fascinating gems, but here it's as if he breaks through into his own heart." - Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name

"A compelling memoir, one that reads with the forward momentum of a good novel. A splendid book in every way." - Jay Parini, author of Borges and Me

"Written with a keen ear for the darkly humorous inflections of Italian American speech, Shorto's story of a small-town USA mobster, his grandfather, ought to change forever how we think about the mafia. La Cosa Nostra flourished not only in big cities but across the continent, wherever there were mines and factories, as much a part of the post–World War II industrial boom as smokestacks, union bosses, and big cars with fins. Smalltime is also a deeply personal and moving reflection on the bonds between Italian American grandfathers, fathers, and sons. Beautifully written, brilliantly researched, Smalltime establishes itself immediately as a classic of the Italian American experience." - Robert A. Orsi, professor of religious studies and history, Northwestern University, and author of The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950

"This immersive, poignant memoir reminds us all to question the stories and myths we've grown up with. These pages are both gritty and elegiac, tense and tender, embodying the contradictions at the heart of all families. A deeply satisfying read." - Christopher Castellani, author of Leading Men

"Part memoir, part narrative history rich in mesmerizing detail, at the heart of Smalltime is the abiding love the author clearly holds for his colorful and flawed Sicilian immigrant family, one that looks so very much like the American family. I could not put this book down, and you won't be able to either." - Andre Dubus III

This information about Smalltime was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

Write your own review

Frances M. (Shaker Heights, OH)

Mob in Central PA
Thoroughly enjoyed reading about small time mob activity in PA. This book gives a view of the evolution of the Shorto family from info collected by a grandson from interviews and historical records in Johnstown. Of particular interest is the relationship between the authors father and his grandfather and questions that were left unanswered by the research done. In reading this book, I felt like I was a fly on the wall witnessing mid century small town America in action. Wouldn't we all like to hear of the historical day to day evolution of our own families?

Elizabeth (Salem, OR)

I really enjoyed the book despite not having any connection to Italy, Pennsylvania, the Mafia, or deeply dysfunctional families! Even if you are not interested in the life of second and third generation Italian immigrants, the author's journey to understanding his father was quite affecting and universal. The writing was very good and the author wove the story strands together effectively.

Liz D. (East Falmouth, MA)

Johnstown Memories
Smalltime by Russ Shorto like a trip back in time when we would sit around the kitchen table and listen as my sister's husband would regale us with stories of his Italian family.
I am a Pittsburgh native so stories about the mob were quite common in the 50's growing up.
Russ made this history of the small time Italian mob
Very accessible and understandable with his story of his grandfather's life and the history of Johnstown after the war. Johnstown was in the midst of the Golden Age of steel production. The Italian immigrants so long downtrodden as less than others took the opportunity to gain power with gambling and rackets.
Mr. Short brings that history to life and honors both his father and grandfather at the same time.
The book is a smooth read moving easily between the past and present the Italian with lots of great stories along the way. I was sorry to see Smalltime end, I could have listened to more stories. Very Enjoyable book!

Laure R. (Fresno, CA)

I thoroughly enjoyed this true story of Italian immigrants beginning a new life in a small western Pennsylvania town and their evolution from low level steel mill workers to organized crime.

The author, Russel Shorto, researched the history of his family and the "mob" through interviews with senior relatives, their friends and associates in addition to researching documents, newspaper accounts, etc . It encompasses the era of prohibition to present day. It all provided him answers to many mysteries, large and small, existing between family members and great insight to their character.
The finished product is a beautifully written story of both his family and the mob. I found the history of the 1930's and details of various "business ventures" of the mob fascinating. The inclusion of several photos of his family members added to my enjoyment and I appreciated it.

I recommend this book to all.

Michelle M. (Palm City, FL)

To know One is to Love One
This book brought back memories from my childhood. My father is from Italy and my Mom from France so the work ethic that I grew up with I found in this book. Also my husband grew up in Providence, Rhode Island and was very familiar with The Patriarca Family. Many instances in this book about mob activities described hit their mark. I will not explain why.

I love the way the author weaves history in his books. I so enjoyed " The Island at the Center of the World ". My husband had an apartment in Manhattan so we explored many historical sites there. They seemed to come more alive after reading that book.

I would love for Mr. Shorto to write more about his time growing up. Italian families are so entertaining. Liked the gravy recipe with the meatballs. Can't wait for my husband to read this book and try the recipe.

Carrie M. (Rahway, NJ)

Smalltime A story of My Family and the Mob
Russel Shorto's Smalltime, is a captivating and engaging family story of Russell Shorto's relatives' and friends' deep involvement, even if involuntary at times, with the mob. The story stretches from the immigration of great-grandfather, who leaves Italy and his life and family to find a new one in Johnstown Pennsylvania, and progresses through the next generations and how they survived and strives with the help of the mob in small town America, but not without disappointments and hardships.

What makes the book so engrossing is the author's research and reliance especially on his father, who a forms writing partnership with the author to explore family memories, and interviews not only with his family and friends, but with others who knew the author's ancestors and their associates who were helped by the family though time and if they had any association with the mob.

Amazingly the author admits to missing pieces of the story. A highly recommended memoir that is rich in detail but offers humor and is written in a pace that keeps the reader involved and discovering and appreciating the strength of the family. An interesting side note while looking biographical information on the author, I found an interesting interview in BookPage (, in which Russell Shorto discusses eight true factors that led to the growth of the mob in America.

...21 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto is the best-selling author of The Island at the Center of the World, Amsterdam, and Revolution Song, and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. He lives in Cumberland, Maryland.

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