Since we’re going to Italy, I am taking the occasion to write about one of my favorite “Italian Immigration Novels”.  This one– IN THE GARDEN OF PAPA SANTUZZU — is more specifically a Sicily to American novel. My daughter will be enjoying Sicily during her spring break. I’ll be drinking wine in Roma and Bari.

“Cu nesci arrinesci” (He who leaves succeeds)

Tony Ardizzone’s novel, In the Garcden of Papa Santuzzu, is an abundant collection of magical stories and magnificent language woven together to create a extraordinary loving novel about not only Sicilian Americans but also the heartbreak and hope of common people who leave a home to begin again somewhere else.  In Ardizzone’s case the people are poor Sicilian farm laborers who endure backbreaking work in the rocky fields of oppressive baruni.  The place they migrate to is La Merica.  The story begins as the character’s father, Papa Santuzzu and his wife Adriana, push their sons and daughters, one by one, to the land of opportunity and promise.

Rosa Dolci, Gaetanu, Luigi, Assunta, Salvatore, Rosaria and Livicedda Girgenti, Teresa Pantaluna, Ciccina Agneddina, and Carla and Gerlando Cavadduzzo all bribe their way out of the poverty of their island–one disguises herself as a man; another gains the help of enchanted eels.  In La Merica they each settle in different cities and wait for their father to arrive.  He never does.  The children find jobs where “everyone is made to kneel down before Big Business and its creator, Capitalism.”  One brother becomes a baker, another a hobo, another participates in the formation of a union in Lawrence, Massachusetts.  The child Anna experiences visions of a Black Madonna in a Chicago orphanage.

Each of the siblings, in their own way, runs up against the barons of industry–not much unlike the tyrannical landlords in Sicily–who comment that if the garlic-reeking, “black-eyed and swarthy” Italians who have “an inborn inclination towards criminality” falls incapacitated beside his machine, “there are over a hundred others willing to take his place, often at a lower wage.”

The family truly becomes American–and the new world becomes not new anymore–when one of them dies.  They cry so much as they drop his flesh into the ground that they realize a passing stranger might think they were crude.  Yet more than that, as they stand at gravesite, they already know that “we had come to a land that would stunt and shame and silence us.”

This seems the wise impetus for Tony Ardizzone’s novel. Each chapter of …Papa Santuzzu tells whom an immigrant—-Sicilian, Italian, Mexican, Korean–might be. It is a story about the divine within gentle, valuable souls; it is family story; it is a story that makes you feel as if you are being held by a loving grandparent.  Most importantly Tony Adrizzone’s novel echoes the past more loudly than the present so that future generations will not forget where they have come from.


By Tony Ardizzone

Picador USA, 1999


Complementary Sicilian-themed materials: video– KAOS, the Taviani brothers adaptation of Luigi Pirandello stories; picture book– Barbara Gruzzuti Harrison’s “The Islands of Italy”; novel–Dancia Mariani “The Silent Duchess” (Sicilian novel available in translation).