Donna Jo Napoli
Wendy Lamb Books
Alligator Bayou is not a fun read. It's not an easy read. But it is a must read.
The story is based upon the hanging of four Sicilians in Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1899. It is told from the viewpoint of fourteen year-old Calogero, who has come to America from Sicily after the death of his mother to live with his uncles and help them run their vegetable stores.
The uncles have a prosperou business in rural Louisiana, miles and miles from New Orleans and the lynchings they experienced there. They believe they are safe here. They hope they are. But safe is a relative term swimming in a sea of prejudice.
Tallulah is far from open to its Italian residents. Calogero and his thirteen year old cousin, Cirone, are not allowed to attend the school for whites, and are dissuaded from attending the school for blacks. "Better to be uneducated." Italians living in the U.S. in the 1800s were treated as a race unto themselves, shunned by whites and warned not to mingle with blacks. So Calogero takes English lessons from a young artist passing through the area, Frank Raymond. Frank also introduces him to the last living member of the Tunica tribe, Joseph.
Calogero's heart, however, belongs Patricia, one of the black girls who passes by the vegetable stand he runs each day after school. He soon become friends with her brothers, who take Calogero and Cirone through a rite of passage, alligator hunting.
Life is starting to look up. The black community invites the Calogero and his family to celebrate school graudation, and the fourth of July. They are finally beginning to make friends and Calogero is falling in love, all this is a sea of hate and prejudice. The townspeople are begrudging toward the Italians and their prosperity. When the whites find out that Calogero and his family are celebrating with the black community, things get worse.
Harsh words fly and tempers flair when Uncle Francesco serves people in the order they come into the store, not according to the color of their skin. The Italians are cheating the whites and giving the blacks special favors. Vioelence bubbles underneath an ever thinning sheen of ice.
It breaks through with the simplest of acts. Uncle Francesco's goats roam free. They bother the doctor. One night Dr. Hodge shoots Francesco's favorite goat, Bedda.
Francesco's brother, Carlo, confronts the doctor about killing the goat, albeit in Italian, and gets his head bashed in. Gusn coem out. The doctor tries to shoot Carlo's other brother, Guiseppe, who himself shoots Dr. Hodge in the leg. Rumors spread like wildfire. The Italians have killed the doctor. A mob forms. They capture all of Calogero's family, except Calogero.
Frank Raymond tries to spirit Calogero out of town, but Cal refuses to go. He wants to help his family. He slips away from Frank to find his uncles, only to watch the mob preparing to hang them. Patricia and her brothers find Calogero and help him escape.
There are no real spoilers in this review. Napoli explains the driving force of the story in the preface, the hangings. She does a poignant job of making the reader care about the characters even though foreboding, foreshadowing and death ultimately hang over their heads. By the end of the book, you yearn for them to escape their fate, all the while knowing, that fate occurred so long ago.
Napoli weaves in fact with fiction to create a searing, eye-opening reading experience. The story reveals and reminds that prejudice is not so long ago in our history, and that it has been directed at people's of all different races and creeds. It also tells the story - that has faded somewhat into the folds of history - of the prejudices that Italian immigrants had to overcome to stake their claim in this country, thereby creating a rich forum for class, reader, book club discussion about not only on the shortcomings of our country in dealing with its immigrants not only in the past but also today.
Truthfully, I dreaded reading this book. Inequalities, prejudice and the failings of humanity hang with me long after I've read about them. They leave a wound that aches. This book and its story are no different. However, the change reading Alligator Bayou wrought in me isn't just pain at the shortcomings of man toward man. The story deepened my understanding of immigration and what my family must have gone through when they came here. It heightened my respect and for immigrants the world around. And it left me with an increased awareness that tolerance isn't about accepting that with which we are comfortable with but accepting that which is new and uncomfortable. Tolerance is the glue that binds humanity together.
It needs to be spread around. Donna Jo Napoli, in telling this story, challenges her readers to do just that. Take on the challenge. You won't be sorry.
For more must read books, visit The Book Review Club headquarters over at Barrie Summy's blog.
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