American-born Maggio (Mattanza, 2000) embarks on a journey to her rustic Sicilian roots.
Invited into the cozy homes of Sicilian cousins during the 1990s, the author provides an intimate glimpse of an Old World lifestyle in which respectful women never leave home without fashionable shoes and male escorts––noting instances when the escorts carried the women over puddles to protect the ladies’ footwear. Maggio’s lyrical prose evokes sumptuous cuisine (her favorite panino is “peccorino cheese, pickled peppers, capers, and tomato on fragrant yellow bread, chewy as steak and smeared with olive oil”) and breathtaking scenery, including the Madonie Mountains south of Cefalù. Thoughtful character sketches render intriguing personalities like the author’s Spartan cousin Nella, who was locally famous for frugality and her tidy home. Although an enthusiast for rural simplicity in such small towns as Locati, Viagrande, and Castiglione, Maggio points out modern-day Sicily’s horrors as well, showing how both peasants and police tremble under the reign of the Mafia. She reports natural disasters, including a volcanic eruption of Mount Etna, though it’s beautified with a flowery description: “Tiny veins of red molten rock growing through cracks in the crust. Then I heard the crinkling of tissue paper, then porcelain shattering into shards. It was the flow inching forward, shedding its crust.” She delves into annals, recounting the legend of St. Agatha’s martyrdom before detailing her own participation in the elaborate festival during which the saint’s reliquary laden with precious objects is carried through the streets of Catania. Maggio also illuminates Sicily’s diversity, using her dinners with people of Greek, Arabic, and Norman descent to segue into brief histories of the different civilizations that have dominated the island at various times. All these narrative strands are woven together in a compelling meditation on Sicilian culture.
A serene portrait of slow-paced country life—and an arcane world of simple pleasures.