Sicilian Dreams, a novel by Vincent Panella, New York: Bordighera Press 2020.
Reviewed by Nino Provenzano
Bi-annual Newsletter of Arba Sicula:
An International Organization that Promotes the Language and Culture of Sicily
Volume XXXII, No. 2, Fall 2020
The central themes of this novel are: The Sicilian economical condition of the time. Life in the old world that restricted progress. Emigration in the USA, adaptation and survival skills in the new world. And the unsuspecting ability of the Sicilian woman to challenge her role imposed by society and be able to embrace her destiny.
We are in the hinterland Sicily, in the town of Castellano Del Torre at the beginning of the 20th century. There is a rally in the town square. The speaker is telling a group of peasants that the land belongs to those that cultivate it. The man who is talking is Don Vito Cascio Ferro from a nearby town who is also saying that he had already divided his land to the peasants. Although no one heard about this, the peasants were eager to listen. When Don Vito began talking about the Fasci, in the group he spotted a tall clean shaven fellow, wearing black pants and a shirt buttoned at the neck.
Looking at him Don Vito said “the time has come to confront the rich landowners and their protectors who function as managers of the land abusing and starving the peasants. The Fasci are against these abuses. We are forming the Fasci which are a league of men to win the leases on the Castellano estates so to eliminate the managers. Now, Don Vito is directing his speech at the tall man saying “We need a Fascio here! Will you turn away or will you be a man to improve your lot? I’ll tell you, within five years most of the men around here will be in L’America, and Sicily will be left to those with the foresight to see the future.” Santo, the tall fellow was skeptic at those words and said “What kind of future can we expect here without young men?” “The first condition for the change,” Don Vito said, “is patience. Don’t mock those who are slow to absorb.” Santo wanted to know how exactly a league of peasants was formed. But before Don Vito could answer, the police arrived and people were told to go home.
Not long after that encounter with Don Vito, Santo tested what he had learned about the Fasci. He went over a field where the manager was supervising the peasants for the harvest of the fava beans. Santo tried to explain the new idea to the armed manager, but he was chased away in the most humiliating way.
Santo’s wife had died, and he was living with his two children Franco and Mariana in a humble home with his old mother. Mariana was like a bud ready to bloom into a beautiful flower and Nicolò was passing by the house looking at Mariana’s window all the time. Santo knew that Nicolò’s family was not a reputable one and warned the kid to stay away from his daughter because he was going to L’America now, but he would be back soon. This was like asking the wolf to guard the lamb.
Santo arrives in Louisiana, and like many emigrants of his town, finds work in a plantation. The work conditions are horrible, similar to the slavery of a few decades ago for the blacks. Here too, there is a manager, Torino who also provides shelter and food for the workers. Their paychecks get wiped out by the end of the week after paying Torino. Santo, with the agreement of his working companions tries to talk to this manager, who is also Sicilian, to improve their conditions and have some money left after expenses. All to no avail! One night Santo gets pulled down from his bunk bed and gets the beating of his life. The beating was administered by the blacks also dependants of Torino.
Santo leaves, with the help of a black minister who, with his mule and cart tries to take Santo to New Orleans where Santo heard Don Vito Cascio Ferro now is. On the way there, they stop at a small farm owned by a Sicilian. Santo knows the owner, Vaccarella. They are upset because the fellow that was supposed to marry the sister of Mrs. Vaccarella was killed in New Orleans and the news was in the paper. The dead fellow’s name was Torino. They wanted to know from Santo if he knew anything about it. “Nothing” Santo said. He also explained that Torino had a lot of enemies. “I know,” Mr. Vaccarella said, I worked for him too.
Santo’s daughter Mariana meanwhile was seduced by Nicolò in Sicily and was pregnant. Nicolò was marrying another girl who he was engaged prior to his affair with Mariana. Santo meets Don Vito in New Orleans and learns that among the Sicilians there, the belief was that he killed Torino. “Not true” Santo asserts, but the word is out, and cannot be retrieved.
The famous detective Giuseppe Petrosino enters the scene. He is hunting Sicilian criminals, and at this time he is in New Orleans looking for Don Vito Ferro. But in the process comes across Santo. He has a hunch that Santo has something to hide, but with no proof lets him go.
In spite of the cunning ability of Petrosino to find his prey, Don Vito and Santo manage to get on a steamship back to Sicily. Santo’s first priority is to secretly send his daughter to a distant relative in Palermo to give birth at an orphanage and give the baby up for adoption.
Mariana’s aunt Angelina, Santo’s sister, is in New York. Angelina and her husband own a business there. She is a tough woman and encourages her niece to fight on and come to L’America.
It was known that Nicolò had an older brother in New York who was a bad apple, and people in town wondered what would happen to Nicolò now that Santo was back home. Mariana was devastated for what had happened and now noticed that the heartless Nicolò is again showing up on her street. While Santo was not home, Franco showed his sister what he found hidden in the house: a pistol! He told his sister that their father taught him how to use it. “Why do you think he did that?” Mariana asked. “Maybe he thinks that after he kills Nicolò, his brother will have him killed.” Franco answered “I think that Father believes that I should know how to defend you and myself, after he is gone.” Mariana thought that the job to kill the man that betrayed her and who was continuing to insult her by passing under her window every day sitting on the mule, was hers and hers alone. And she did it! Santo had to escape back to L’America, with people thinking that he had killed two people, one in L’America and one home, when he had not killed anyone. Mariana and Franco joined their father in L’America but the relation between father and daughter was never good. Santo could not forgive his daughter for two sins. One for bringing dishonor to the family, and the second for killing Nicolò. That job was his, not hers!
The story has many other twists and turns. The narrative is very rich with details of the emigrant drama. For the emigrant, it was never easy to cut off the umbilical cord with the old world, and was always hard to become integrated in the new world! Those emigrants suffered like all the emigrants suffer everywhere in the world, and had to wait for their kids to grow up in the new world with the new language, to claim a place in a society that saw them as intruders or illegal aliens. Emigrants were and still are the building cornerstones of this country. The country that in 1907 Sicilians called L’America!