Picaresque antics in mid-1950s Italy, related with gentle irony by an expat husband-and-wife team living in Sydney, Australia.
Valentini, a former actor and scriptwriter, lived these tales as a child growing up in the hilltop village of Collemare, nestled in the Abruzzo region’s Appennini mountains. Hardacre, also a screenwriter, penned the first-person narrative from his stories. Young Mario’s extended family lived around the portone (communal house), scratching out a living from the land in the lean years after World War II. His father was working in Germany, and his mother decided that four-year-old Mario would be better off with his uncle, a kindly, well-educated itinerant priest who was given a nice house in each town he served. At first heartbroken to leave his mother, the boy adapted. As they moved every few years to a new village, he made new friends. The movable household also contained his caretaker “aunt,” a distant, unmarried relative who found him “scostumato, which means ‘insolent and unruly.’ ” Discrete chapters portray Mario’s greedy attempt to switch toys during the Epiphany ritual of gift-giving, as forgiving Sister Angelina looks on (“La Suora”); the mingled fear and sense of the sublime he felt when a wolf paid an unwelcome visit to the village (“Il Lupo”); what he learned about beauty and color from lessons with an elderly painter (“Il Pittore”); and an encounter with a dangerous revolutionary—his grandfather fought with Garibaldi—who secretly instructs the boy about the church’s tyranny and abuses (“Il Garibaldino”). Teenaged Mario was forced by his family to attend seminary, but even his uncle acknowledged after 18 months that he’d never make it as a priest.
Lively, sweetly humorous coming-of-age stories affectionately evoke a lost time and place—wonderfully suitable for YA readers as well.