Calogero is a 14-year-old immigrant to Louisiana from Sicily, and he lives in the small town of Tallulah where his cousins and uncles sell groceries and produce. The year is 1899, and the small band of Sicilians find the constraints that won’t let them mingle with whites because their skin is dark also keeps them from socializing with blacks.
Calogero and his 13-year-old cousin Cirone are lonely and want to fit in: they work to learn English, eat American food and try to learn the customs of their new country. But tight economic times lead to tension between the white Louisianans and the Sicilians, who the whites see as taking business away from them. When Calogero and his relatives become friends with blacks, tensions escalate.
Based on a true event, Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli brings this powerful clash of cultures to life with tales of alligator hunts in the bayou, Italian immigrant communities, picking cotton, selling watermelons, cooking sweet potatoes and eating alligator.
This tale reminds us that the immigrant story in the U.S., like the story between whites and blacks, was and is often wrought with difficulties. The story was particularly poignant for me, because I grew up in Louisiana amongst many long-established Italians, and I had no idea of the hardships many of their ancestors endured so their descendants could one day become part of the accepted American community.
Napoli understands the time period she writes of well, and there are references to the all-but-gone Tunica tribe of Mississippi and Louisiana and the 1890 U.S. Census, in which some blacks found out for the first time they were free from slavery. It’s truly amazing to look back on the time and issues that dominated the day: Jim Crow laws, the relationship between white and blacks, and the threat immigrants posed to the normal routine of life. Mother-daughter book clubs with girls aged 10 to 13 will find a lot to talk about.