THE OTHER SIDE: Growing Up Italian in America by Vincent Panella

THE OTHER SIDE: Growing Up Italian in America

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Panella is one more rebellious offspring of an immigrant family out to reconcile himself to his past by undertaking a ""Roots"" expedition, Italian style. A slender set of sketches--growing up, family anecdotes, visits to the Italian villages of his grandparents--is combined with 125 photographs (many by his wife, Susan Sichel) in order to try to impart the cultural and emotional qualities that define a family even across the barriers of immigration. The author's accounts of his youth--suffering the usual agonies of both embarrassment and pride, enduring an overly protective family that would ""chop, curb, or redirect any activity""--are all too familiar. But when he turns to the rest of the family, he shows a good eye and ear. He distinguishes deftly between his paternal Neapolitan heritage--witty and ambitious--and the Sicilian stoicism of his mother. The family's early days in Hell's Kitchen are flavored with the peripheral gangsterism of immigrant Italian life: an uncle stole coal and ice (1000 pounds on a good day) to sell, and wood for the bakery oven. The ""real immigration,"" it emerges, was not from Italy to the U.S., but from Manhattan to an Irish-Jewish neighborhood in Queens--""You can't steal wood in Queens,"" said Uncle Marlo. Panella's father believed in money, his mother in olive oil--and his grandmother ""cleaned ears by rolling a piece of starched linen into a cone, putting the tip into a person's ear, and lighting the other end."" Panella gives fine descriptions of Naples, where ""people gave directions with the same secret intimacy"" as his Aunt Jenny, who made a conspiracy of buying a quart of milk; of the donkey who lived in his Sicilian relatives' basement; and of the clash between his tenuous Italian and local dialects. He meets the family scandal, a great-aunt whose husband contracted syphilis and gave it not to her, but to her daughter. Ultimately, the reader, like the author, does get a sense of what his family is like--but Panella himself is a touch-and-go presence.

Pub Date: Sept. 7th, 1979
Publisher: Doubleday