Novelist-playwright Arsenault (The Company Way, 2012, etc.), drawing on his own family’s background, describes an Italian wife’s reluctant immigration to New England in the 1920s and the drama that ensues.
This novel details the bittersweet immigrant experiences of a working-class Italian family in the rough-edged New Hampshire hamlet of Berlin, which include quite a multitude of sorrows. Assunta, a young, Italian wife and mother, is at the heart of the ensemble family saga, and she proves herself to be a born survivor—and nobody’s fool. It’s 1920 when she’s summoned to come to Ellis Island by her husband Camillo, who’s been forging a career in America for the last several years as a stonemason. But Camillo has also been having a long-standing affair with his French housekeeper, and Assunta soon realizes that she—and her children—don’t really know him very well at all. But, true to her vows, she takes on a motherly role in a land that’s not only full of opportunity, but also pain and disappointment. The first half covers Assunta’s initial months in America; the rest spans Prohibition, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, the rise of Axis-Italian fascism, and America’s entry into World War II—yet the book never feels rushed or overcrowded. It also addresses how all of these historical events affect and buffet the town of Berlin in general and the heroine’s growing (yet mortal) family in particular. Arsenault resists the temptation to make the characters’ emotions melodramatic, and he also eschews sepia-toned sentimentality. Neither does he try to hammer this family saga into a statement about what America means. The results may lack poetry and vigorous histrionics, but the unhurried, direct prose does have an appealing, newspaperlike verisimilitude.
A straightforwardly told chronicle that will appeal to readers with an interest in genealogy.