Realizing the American Dream,
a Book Club Discussion
By Neely Kennedy
In the LHJ September
book club pick, The Shoe Makers Wife,
a leading book club favorite author, Adrianna Trigiani, tells the story of the Italian
immigrant experience at the turn of the century. Like many emigrants faced with
poverty, this three part story spans Ciro Lazzari and Enza Ravenelli’s intertwined
destiny, as they set out for America in search of opportunity and the dream of a
better life. The story begins with bittersweet childhood experiences for both on
a mountain in the Italian Alps, followed by their young adulthood struggling to
find work and housing in a rough and tumble New York, and finally, the realization
of a dream in making a better life together.
Below are examples from their journey to America that tell of the longing for home
and those left behind, the personal sacrifice and persistence required in their
struggle for survival, and the cultural pride and preservation in honoring their
roots, while building a new Italian American identity.
Lost Loved Ones: After Ciro discovers the town’s priest is involved in an illicit
affair with a local girl, he is forced into separation from the most important person
in his life in order to escape the priest’s revenge.
“Perhaps they would see each other a few times in the decades to come. There would
be letters, but they would be infrequent. For two boys who had been inseparable,
two brothers were completely simpatico, to lead such separate lives was a terrible
Homesick: Over the years away in a foreign land, both Ciro and Enza pine for
the comforts of family and beauty and familiarity of life on the mountain.
“Primavera in the Italian Alps was like a jewelry box opened in sunlight. Clusters
of red peonies like ruffles of taffeta framed pale green fields, wild white orchids
climbed up the glittering graphite mountain walls.”
Social mobility and the nouveau riche: Ciro’s sponsors in America taught him
the trade of shoe making, but in their success, Ciro noted a shift to a pretentious
attitude that he found both ironic and offensive.
“They had all emigrated because they were poor and had to find work. Now that the
shop was successful, Signora had begun the slow, careful climb of reinvention and
had even more reasons to look down on her struggling fellow Italians.”
Comrades: Without the help of incredible support and friendship by Luigi and
Laura, Ciro and Enza might not have had the courage to reach for their dreams.
“My world went from hues and tones of our mountain to this great American palette,
and I would never have had the guts to try it if it weren’t for Laura.”
Assimilate & adapt: In an unlikely encounter working as a wash girl for a rich
patron, Enza overhears a moving aria by Puccini that inspires her to strive for
more while preserving her cultural identity.
“For the first time since she had come to America, Enza felt at home. In that moment,
she suddenly realized how to marry American ambition and Italian artistry. Both
had nurtured her and helped her grow.”
“It seemed to Ciro that so much of life was about not holding on, but letting go
and in so doing, the beauty of the past and the happiness he felt then came full
circle like a band of gold.”
Book Club Bonus: Liven things up by asking members to bring a dish
or drink to share that represents their ancestry.
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