A biographical novel explores the life and work of an educator and reformer.
In this book, Fuglei (Fermi’s Gifts, 2017) follows Maria Montessori, developer of the eponymous education system, from early childhood through the end of her life. Guided by a supportive mother—and occasionally impeded by a traditional father who takes longer to embrace his daughter’s brilliance—Maria pursues education not available to most girls in 19th-century Italy, eventually earning a medical degree and treating underserved populations in Rome. Her work with mentally challenged patients leads her to develop a theory of development that ultimately becomes the Montessori educational system, first implemented in one of Rome’s poorest neighborhoods. As Maria’s methods become popular around the world, she spends years traveling the globe, training teachers, and fighting—particularly against a duplicitous American magazine editor—to retain control of the program. Fuglei also examines Maria’s personal life, from her deep-seated sense of religious commitment to her loving relationship with her son, Mario, the product of a brief affair with a fellow doctor. The book is thoroughly researched, displaying the author’s knowledge of her subject without swamping readers in the minutiae of Italian political unification or turn-of-the-century medical practices. The writing is strong throughout, and Fuglei does an excellent job of telling Montessori’s tale chronologically while also highlighting the repeated themes—obedience and defiance, the value of trust, a sense of self-control—that draw the story threads together. Although the tone occasionally borders on hagiography (“We stood up to Garibaldi. But I wouldn’t want to face that little mite on the battlefield”), the author makes it clear that her subject merits readers’ esteem. (In addition, the book is published in a series that deliberately celebrates the lives of notable Italians and Italian-Americans, so the tone of admiration is intentional.) The result is an extremely enjoyable novel that is also informative, engaging readers in a dramatic tale based on historical events.
A well-written book relates the compelling and inspiring story of Maria Montessori.