Bernardi, a translator and historian (Houses with Names: The Italian Immigrants of Highwood, Illinois, 1990), quickly follows her first novel (The Day Laid on the Altar, p. 813) with this Drue Heinz prize-winning collection of stories, set both in suburban Chicago and in the Italian town her family comes from.
One of the longest, “Waiting for Giotto,” does double duty as the first chapter of Bernardi’s novel, but it’s a welcome cheat for those who haven’t read the previous book: an effective story of a shepherd boy who aspires to be a great painter like Giotto. A number of tales are set in the Old Country: in the title piece, a boy learns from his grandfather how to distinguish among mushrooms but is almost paralyzed by fear of picking the deadly ones; and in “The Child Carrier,” a woman from the mountains serves as wet nurse to abandoned babies before they’re claimed by wealthy adoptive parents. Roughly chronological, the stories connect loosely through characters as well—the first America-set one records the life of the wet nurse’s brother, a coal miner in Colorado. The volume leaps ahead to modern Illinois and tales of growing up in an ethnic family: “Sunday” is a baby’s-eye-view of a family dinner, and the next two pieces capture the frustrations of a later-generation Italian-American housewife. Bernardi provides two views of a trip, in 1968, to downtown Chicago to visit the Field Museum, and as “Working the Clock” makes clear, the mother is fighting hard against depression. Her daughter, meanwhile, worries about boys, school, and confusing religious instruction. The strongest stories skip to the next generation: a middle-aged Italian-American doctor, dedicated to her work, returns to Italy in order to honor her mother’s last wish.
Folkloric at first, and full of Italian phrases (translated), Bernardi’s somber stories have the outlines of a grand family saga but settle for the minor pleasures of competent ethnic fiction.