Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli
Finished: Apr. 13, 2009
First Published: Mar. 10, 2009
Genre: YA, historical fiction
Reason for Reading: Received a Review Copy from Random House Canada.
The night is so dark, I can barely see my hands.
Comments: This is a coming of age story of one Italian immigrant boy, Calogero, of uncertain age until the end of the book where we can figure he is about fourteen years old. It is the story of his life with his uncles and cousin, as the only Italian family in a small Louisiana town in 1899. They grow vegetables and are grocers and doing a might fine job at the business. He becomes friends with a small group of black boys and falls in love with one of their sisters, Patricia. The book is filled with their adventures, alligator hunting in the swamp, sneaking a kiss at a church picnic and a meeting with a very old Indian way out in the swamps.
But this story is also set against a very disturbing time in American history. One in which I knew nothing about. The discrimination against Italian immigrants in the south. This was the time of Jim Crow laws which were set up to make sure that the whites had superiority over the blacks but also left certain immigrant groups in a no man's land. The Italians in the south were not considered white and were not welcome where white society was. They were also given a tough time because economically they were taking business away from the white company stores. On the other hand, Italians were neither considered to be black and an Italian was sure to get himself beat up at the least or lynched at the most for fraternizing with the blacks; the whites certainly didn't want the Italians giving the blacks any high and mighty ideas. The Italians were also denied an education at this time as they were not allowed in the white schools and the blacks had their schools in their churches, Protestant, and the Italians were Catholic and therefore chose to go without for the time being. It was within this climate that our main character, Calogero, finds himself.
Based on a true story of which little but the barest of facts are known, Ms. Napoli has brought to life a terribly tragic story and a pocket of time back to the future so that we may not forget the hardships and the abuses that went on not so long ago. A beautifully written story with searing truthfulness. The characters are wonderful and the end is too sad to comprehend. This is a quick little read but it's packed with a lot of punch.