Alligator Bayou ハードカバー – 2009/3/10
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Talullah, Louisiana. 1899.
Calogero, his uncles, and cousins are six Sicilian men living in the small town of Tallulah, Louisiana. They work hard, growing vegetables and selling them at their stand and in their grocery store.
To 14-year-old Calogero, newly arrived from Sicily, Tallulah is a lush world full of contradictions, hidden rules, and tension between the Negro and white communities. He’s startled and thrilled by the danger of a ’gator hunt in the midnight bayou, and by his powerful feelings for Patricia, a sharpwitted, sweet-natured Negro girl. Some people welcome the Sicilians. Most do not. Calogero’s family is caught in the middle: the whites don’t see them as equal, but befriending Negroes is dangerous. Every day brings Calogero and his family closer to a a terrifying, violent confrontation.
Donna Jo Napoli is the award-winning author of many distinguished books for young readers, among them The King of Mulberry Street and Daughter of Venice. She lives with her family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where she is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College
The book is written for younger (ages 9 - 13) readers given the complexity of the sentence structure and plot - but Napoli (a linguistics professor by trade) also shows a mastery of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and Italian in the dialogue, and clearly - brutally - brings to light what life was like in the South at the start of the last century. What is perhaps most shocking, however, is that the story she has written here - of Sicilians not seen as "colored" (to use the term of the day) nor as "white" (thereby not granted the social status of "Americans") and the persecution they suffered is based largely on real-life events. At issue, of course, is not so much "race" as the maintenance of power (particularly economic power) by the elite. Power that was held and perpetrated by dividing the poor along "racial" lines (poor whites over poor African-Americans, poor immigrants somewhere in the middle ... divide and conquor, let them fight among themselves in order to preserve the status quo at the top of the social and economic heirarchy.) This is the sort of story I wish was taught more to our youth at an earlier age.
Of special interest for older (older than 13) readers is the bibliography Napoli provides at the end of the story, outlining the real events that inspired the story, as well as a list of articles and websites for readers to delve more deeply into the story. Its a short read - maybe a lazy afternoon (or weekend) - but certainly worthy of attention.
In Donna Jo Napoli's fictionalized account of an actual event, 14-year-old Sicilian Calogero has been staying with his uncles and a cousin in rural Louisiana since his mother's death forced him to leave Italy. The six Italians run a grocery store and produce stand which have become the favorites of the local women, threatening the solvency of the local company stores in an area already hard hit economically. At the same time, the Italians are not accepted by the local whites as neighbors or even as equals. They don't speak English and they don't follow local customs. Local and national newspapers report that Italians are all mob members, armed and dangerous. The black community (referred to in the book as "Negroes" in keeping with the custom of the times) meanwhile, is also wary of them. With the exception of business contacts and a small handful of more enlightened locals, the Italians are profoundly isolated.
Calogero is still trying to navigate his new world when events start to escalate. Calogero finds himself smitten with a black girl his age. He and his cousin Cirone begin to make tentative friends with her and her brothers. Meanwhile, his uncles anger the locals because they wait on blacks ahead of a white man. Their goats roam the town, angering the town's doctor. The more comfortable Calogero becomes with Patricia and her family, the more racial and other tensions escalate.
Reading this book is much like reading a horror book (in fact, it could be argued it IS a horror book). You know from the get-go that nothing good is going to come out of the situation, so you spend the whole book waiting for the axe to fall, so to speak. Every happy event, every positive scene is shadowed by the looming disaster, the knowledge that the good times won't - can't - last.
This book does a good job of showing the multi-faceted face of racism and prejudice. Prejudice is not just an inherent white-black thing. It's based on fear, economic factors, propaganda, wariness over differences, ignorance. It's also not simply unilateral. The blacks were almost as prejudiced against the Italians as the whites were. The Italians had their own prejudices. But racism has the added component of power, and in the antebellum South, it was the whites who had the power, so they became the perpetrators while blacks and Italians became the victims.
I can't quite give the book a five-star rating. The characters were not all terribly well developed. I had a hard time telling the four uncles apart and keeping them straight and many of the white townsmen seemed like clones of each other. Also, Napoli's spare narrative style makes some events rather difficult to follow at first reading. But nonetheless, I recommend the book highly for the spotlight it shines on racist and prejudicial attitudes and the tragedy it can lead to, especially when ignorance is stoked and fears are fanned through rumor and propaganda.
In this coming of age tale set in Louisiana, we see the roots of prejudice in he South.
It's all about money and power. It is a blight on our country that is still there today with those that want to deny others what they received so that they do not give up their perks. Christian country, my ass.