My husband and I have been lucky enough to travel fairly extensively in Italy. The bulk of our time has been in Rome, the Cinque Terre, and all over Tuscany. However, we were able to spend a bit of time in Naples and Sicily. Enough time to know that even now, in the 21st century, northern Italy and southern Italy are kind of like two different universes. Elizabeth Street, by Laurie Fabiano, reminded me that it wasn’t all that long ago when Italy wasn’t the republic that it is today, and the people in the north looked down on the people in the south and people in the south barely tolerated people in the north.
Fabiano’s novel is based on the true story of her family in Calabria – a region that is located in the “toe of the boot” that is Italy. The economy, even now, is largely dependent on fishing. Being only a stone’s throw from the island of Sicily, the area was impacted by what would now be called the mafia.
In the beginning of Elizabeth Street, Giovanna Costa and Nunzia, the boy she has grown up loving, are married. Nunzia leaves almost immediately for New York City, where he plans to earn money in the land with streets paved with gold and return to his town of Scilla and his wife with comfortable wealth. He unfortunately dies in a construction accident caused by owner negligence. When Giovanna learns of his death, she travels to America to find out what happened and see where he is buried.
Giovanna is surprised to find that the Italian area of NYC is actually fairly segregated in the early 1800s, with Calabrians barely speaking to immigrants from Rome or Milan. She is a strong-willed and intelligent woman, and eventually learns midwifery from a woman doctor from northern Italy who lives nearby. Eventually Giovanna marries again, this time to a widower, not for love but for more practical reasons. She marries a man who is kind and happy to have a wife to care for the children from his first marriage.
Eventually, she and her husband build a successful grocery business and things look positive. That is, until they come face-to-face with the increasing power of the so-called Black Hand, a group that was the prequel to the Mafia we know today who extorted business owners for large sums of money. The story focuses on the strength of character of Giovanna despite the trials they faced. As it is based on a true story, it was somewhat of a history lesson about life in big cities in the early 20th century.
The author told a fascinating family story with unexpected twists and turns. I loved the fact that, though a novel, it stayed true to course since it was based on her own family history.
Admittedly the story was a bit slow moving at times. But I enjoyed the descriptions of NYC in the early 20th century and, of course, all the descriptions of food and family.