Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli (2009)

I jerk back at the word Mafia. Back in Italy the Mafia men used to offer boys money to knock over a fish cart or break a window. Little jobs-warnings before the Mafia men did something more drastic to ruin anybody who didn’t do things their way. Mamma said that’s how boys got corrupted into joining them-she told me to run when they came near. We’re nothing like the Mafia. How could anyone say that about us (p 9)?

alligator_bayouCalogero is one of six Sicilians living together in a rural area of Lousiana in 1899. Skilled at working the earth, they sell vegetables, fruit and limoncello to whites and blacks. This irritates the white community, whose businesses are hurt by the Italian’s success.

Calo doesn’t understand what lynching means, but his family breaks bread with the Negroes while the whites bully him and Cirone, his young companion.

As the Italians befriend the blacks and whites (where possible), the big names around town begin to stir up trouble. Minor conflicts ensue, but with Italians and blacks around the country facing the mob’s noose, the Sicilians are caught between acting correctly and acting safely.

Meanwhile, Calo is falling in love with Patricia, a spirited black girl who laughs at Calo’s naïveté and teaches him much.


This was an unexpectedly engrossing read! Unexpected because the cover was a bit of a turnoff. I didn’t know it was an immigrant story, an Italian one at that! (I’m third-generation Italian-American.) And I didn’t recognize the author, but I’ve since learned she is prolific.

The story grabbed me almost immediately. The tension was almost tangible. And the ending was like a sucker punch!

In the afterword, Napoli writes, “Bigotry pings the brain into numbness, it seems so inexplicable.” When reading about racism, sexism, I often ask myself, “How could this have actually happened?” Napoli answers that question by delivering feelings: pain, anger, remorse, fear. Wonderful writing.


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