BookBrowse Reviews Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco

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Vita by Melania G. Mazzucco
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2005, 448 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 448 pages

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A sweeping tale of discovery, love and loss, part memoir, part fiction. First Novel in English

From the book jacket: In April 1903, the steamship Republic spills more than two thousand immigrants onto Ellis Island. Among them are Diamante, age twelve, and Vita, nine, sent by their poor families in southern Italy to make their way in America. Amid the chaos and splendor of New York, the misery and criminality of Little Italy, and the shady tenants of Vita's father's decrepit Prince Street boarding house, Diamante and Vita struggle to survive, to create a new life, and to become American. From journeys west in search of work to journeys back to Italy in search of their roots, to Vita's son's encounter with his mother's home town while serving as an army captain in World War II, Vita touches on every aspect of the heartbreaking and inspiring immigrant story.

Comment: Mazzucco weaves nonfiction chapters that relate to her own search for family members in Italy and the USA into her fictional account of Italian immigration to America in the early 20th century. She did not visit the area of New York known as Little Italy until 1997, at which time she knew nothing of her grandfather's story - in an Italian article she describes her impression of the area as "a tiny country squeezed between two great powers: China and Fashion".  She went on to say:

"if Little Italy spoke of the past, SoHo spoke of the present. The neighborhood teemed with cafes, galleries and boutiques; I would have liked to live there. A real estate agency was asking $2,000 a month for a two-room apartment, but I could keep a dog. My grandfather paid $10 a month to live on the same street. But he was allowed only half a mattress, the other half being occupied by his cousin."

Her father's father, Diamante, arrived in New York at the age of 12, more than 90 years before her, in 1903, with only an address: Prince Street, where he settled in a dilapidated building on the corner of Prince and Elizabeth Streets.  In the winter the streets, teemed with people and animals (the population density is estimated as having been 1,100 people per acre, and even though the practice was officially prohibited, many persevered in keeping farm animals in the apartments), but in the warmer seasons things fell strangely silent, as most left to find farm work inland.  People kept to themselves, few of the immigrants spoke English and Italians were unwelcome in other parts of Manhattan; even the Italians were strangers to each other as many only spoke the dialect of their own village. 

Most of the Italians were good, hardworking people looking for a better life, but some were not - and America soon grew familiar with the term "Black Hand", and later Mafia - within a few years the area around Prince Street was known as "the Black Hand block".  Mellania does not know if her grandfather knew the infamous Mafia boss Ignazio Lupo, known as the Wolf, but she says that even forty years later he still remembered the thugs who stole his girlfriend and cousin, Vita, a girl with dark hair and deep dark eyes, who had traveled with him to America.

Far more than a simple love story this award winning book provides a dramatic view of New York City from the immigrants' point of view - showing the determination that was required in order rise above the poverty, bigotry and limited prospects that they so often found in "The Land of Opportunity".

This review was originally published in October 2005, and has been updated for the September 2006 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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