The Peasants of Abruzzo ( I Contadini d'Abruzzo) by Roberta Scipioni Ball
The Peasants of Abruzzo (I Contadini d’Abruzzo)
By Roberta Scipioni Ball
The year is 1910. Fifty years after Italy’s unification. The southern regions remain destitute, the peasants left with nothing. Living in the remote mountains of Abruzzo, Anselmo Scipioni knows he can either risk starvation or emigrate like millions of others.
Angela Tortora is a dutiful girl from a nearby village, cursed with a crooked spine and a domineering mother. Anselmo’s brother, Vittorio is an artless shepherd who admires Angela at her labours, unknowingly causing her to fall in love with him. Keenly aware that Angela’s prospects for marriage are poor, her mother seeks the counsel of the village sorceress (strega).Together, they hatch a plan to trap the hapless Vittorio but the plan fails, Vittorio flees and the heartbroken Angela is forced to marry Anselmo, a man whom she does not love.
Together, they immigrate to America and settle in a small canal town in western New York. When tragedy strikes the family, Angela’s depression and grief forces the family’s return to Abruzzo. Her hope of resuming a life there is destroyed by Mussolini’s ruthless dictatorship and the Scipioni family finds itself, once and for all, facing a life in America.
I loved this book. When you first pick up the book and start reading about the Scipioni and Tortora families, you naturally assume this is a real story about the authors grandparents and their struggle for survival. Yet, it is not. The experiences, dialogue and characters are fictionalised. This indeed is clever storytelling. The historical events, described in the book are real so we have this juxtaposition of combining imagination with reality. In the first few chapters, the author sets the scene with historical facts of how Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and the subsequent dark ages. This narrative is essential to set the scene of how Abruzzo, geographically and historically came to be a region frozen in time. Centuries of isolation left the natives only able to communicate in a dialect poorly understood by others. The high hopes of the resurgence, Garibaldi’s Risorgimento in 1861, were dashed leaving Abruzzo a desolate place with primitive inhabitants living in abject poverty. Even with unification, sadly their misery only deepened. When we first meet the family of Anselmo Scipioni, living in San Donato, province of L’Aquila, we are already drawn into the harshness of their lives and their struggle for survival.
‘At the age of 27, Anselmo still lived with his parents and brother, Vittorio. For peasant farmers, (I contadini) it was a means of survival. Many families did not have enough to eat, lived in dank caves or crumbling stone structures. They were desperate to limit the size of their families and were driven to measures not spoken of. Infant death and short life spans helped but at the cost of grief which was difficult to fathom.’
At 26, Angela Tortora had been weaving linen, spinning wool, embroidering and sewing lace since she was seven years old, all taught to her by her grandmother. There would be no education for her save one hour instruction given to her by the parish priest after Mass on Sundays.’
We follow the story of Angela and Anselmo with a sense of horror, admiration and pathos. These two people become locked in a loveless marriage. All the things we have or recognise in our own lives, material possessions, opportunity, comfort and love are absent and I think this is why the story is so utterly compelling to read. They have no choice but to emigrate to America. The author describes their journey in a wooden pull cart along with other Abruzzese emigrants from Sulmona, L’Aquila and Avvezano to Naples, which took several days. After two weeks at sea, with barely any food and undrinkable water, they finally sail into New York and are immediately subjected to medical inspections and questioning at Ellis Island, along with hundreds of other Italians, young and old, all desperate for a new life with opportunity and possibility. Anselmo quickly finds work as an upholsterer in a factory but the author takes great pains to explain the difficulties in adjusting to tremendous changes in their lives.
‘Angela could procure flour already milled to a fine powder and olive oil already pressed, in a dark glass bottle. At the greengrocers she could buy vegetables she had never seen before with money. How strange to purchase her staples with currency!’
I am sure some readers will identify such challenges, emotions and feelings of starting a new ‘expat’ life. The language barrier, the difference in culture and attitudes are challenges to face and overcome in the pursuit of ‘la dolce vitae.’ Anselmo embraces his new life but sadly Angela does not. She is unwilling to learn English, count currency or write even the simplest words. When tragedy strikes, it is natural to want to be with one’s own extended family so after ten years, Angela returns to Abruzzo, shortly followed by her husband. Naively, they return to a politically unstable Italy. Mussolini aka Il Duce is in now power so Angela and Anselmo face further hardships trying to survive in turbulent and dangerous times. This book is a fabulous piece of social history because it focuses on the effect of experiences and events on people and is a real insight into how society lived during such times.
WHY I RECOMMEND THIS BOOK:
The legacy of the past is in the present and I think anyone who has visited Abruzzo or lives there as an expat understands that as a region, it stands alone in its culture, traditions and attitudes. This book explains many things and provides a myriad of interesting facts. The plural form of Abruzzo (Abruzzi) dates back to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies when the region was divided into nearer Abruzzo and further Abruzzo, a method of land management used by the Roman Empire and named in reference to their distance from Naples. The Abruzzo way of life and peculiar customs made northern Italians consider the natives as backward hill people. Only as recently as 1963, were the province of Chieti, Teramo, Pescara and L’Aquila named as one region.
Roberta Scipioni Ball was born in New York, the third of eleven children. Her father was the son of Italian immigrants. After thirty years working in medicine and research, she applied her skills of discovery to embark on a fascinating journey into her family history. In her second novel, The Peasants of Abruzzo, Roberta explores the lives of her paternal ancestors. She describes their life of ignorance and poverty in this forgotten and mysterious region. The author currently resides with her husband in Montana.
Author website: https://wearescipio.com/
Published in 2020. Paperback available on Amazon at £9.89 and kindle edition at £3.82