As we are constantly reminded, the United States is a nation of immigrants, justifiably proud of a record of cultural assimilation far more progressive than that of other “advanced” countries like France and Holland.
But as we are now also constantly reminded with each breaking news item about Tea Party gatherings or discriminatory laws enacted in places like Arizona, there is a dark underside to this story. From the very beginning of mass migration to the U.S. early in the 19th century, immigrants have been unjustly targeted for blame during economic hard times. It just goes with the terrain.
There is, however, still yet another dimension to our immigrant past, one that doesn’t fit into either better-known storyline; it is a counter-narrative that falls neither under the triumphalist version of our collective past nor beneath the darker history of nativist outbursts.
In the course of the past 180 years as many as 25 percent – and perhaps even a higher percentage than that – of all individuals who emigrated to America ended up returning home. Sometimes this reverse exodus occurred after several years spent accumulating enough capital to go back and buy land or set up a business, sometimes much more quickly, when hopes for easy money and the good life proved elusive or when the weight of homesickness became unbearable or from a combination of both.
Still other immigrants have come here and remained, despite discovering that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow was more likely a series of menial jobs and a lifetime spent experiencing the prejudice directed toward the Other by a predominantly Protestant, northern European, English-speaking society. These immigrants persisted, their children growing up and slowly being enfolded into the “melting pot” trope of American life.
It is the depth and complexity of this last counter-narrative that Emilio DeGrazia, himself the son of parents who, as a young married couple, left the hardscrabble hills of Calabria – the poorest region of Italy – plumbs with breathtaking artistry in his new book, Walking on Air in a Field of Green (Nodin Press, 2009).
A word of disclosure: Emilio DeGrazia is an old friend of mine. Even so, Walking on Air was a revelation to me. In it, DeGrazia, the author of several books and the recipient of a Minnesota Book Award for fiction, has crafted what he calls a mosaic and a collage of Italian-American life. These are apt descriptions of the skillful way he employs the full range of narrative options to weave a patchwork of textures, colors, and storytelling techniques ranging from fable-like tales reminiscent of Primo Levi to beautifully rendered meditative essays like “Burying the Fig” and “Baron DeGrazia” to other memoirs that amount to stunning one-act plays capturing the distinctive voices of San Pietro, the DeGrazias’ ancestral village.
DeGrazia takes his book’s title from a harrowing experience his father underwent shortly after arriving in the United States.
Hired to be part of a road crew laying blacktop outside of Detroit where he and his wife are living temporarily with relatives, Carmen DeGrazia finds himself stranded at the end of his very first American work day, abandoned by his boss – who was supposed to drive Carmen into town – and forced to walk miles to get home. Half-lost, the young immigrant laborer stops to try to get his bearings.
He saw it then: the chimney stacks above the distant treetops, the plume of black smoke rising, then spreading itself into a thin layer in the windless sky. The Ford factory…If he could keep the smokestacks in sight he would not be lost. He would get home tonight, and maybe someday he would get a job in the factory.
He walked on, wading into a patch of mustard greens, moisture beginning to appear under the thick young leaves of the plants, and their little yellow blossoms just beginning to unfurl. So many of them, reaching all the way to the trees. Another day in the hot sun would turn this field into a yellow plain. It would be beautiful, but the plants would go to seed, no longer tender and too bitter to be sweet. What a terrible waste.
Here we have a perfect encapsulation of the immigrant’s dilemma: caught between a vision of the future in which he is fully integrated into the American dream – Carmen DeGrazia did indeed end up working most of his life at the Ford plant he glimpsed that evening – and the memories, values, and images of — the ache of longing for — his homeland.
The lost homeland – or abandoned homeland, depending upon your point of view. One of the most compelling themes to emerge over the course of DeGrazia’s book is that of betrayal: experienced by immigrants who fear that, over time, they will lose their place in the fabric of family and ancestral memory; experienced by those who stay behind and who come to bear an often unwitting resentment toward those who went off to seek a “better” life.
This theme, betrayal, surfaces in many guises, some obvious, some not so obvious, throughout Walking on Air, most notably in two chapters. The first, “Blood.” records the time when, as a young man, DeGrazia is delegated to return to San Pietro and look into a patch of land to which his father is legally entitled; DeGrazia and his relatives engage in a cat-and-mouse game and nothing is really resolved. “The Trip Back Home,” meanwhile, recounts DeGrazia’s equally feckless attempt – also commissioned by his father – to convince his paternal uncle, Settimio, to allow his son, Pusquale, DeGrazia’s cousin, to come to America.
DeGrazia’s description of his uncle captures the intense crosscurrents of culturally-rooted expectations, all charged with the confused feelings of ambiguous loss that are part and parcel of the immigrant experience.
Settimio was a tough slender man, deeply tanned, with a kind but sad smile on his face. I saw my father’s face in him, and the words ‘familiar’ and ‘family’ suddenly were married in my mind. I had seen his demeanor and had heard his dialect in my kitchen at home. While my father had grown a paunch, this man was tough and sinewy. But the kinship vibrated beneath these superficial differences. It was clear that they had come from the same town, the same fields, the same house, the same mother, and it became clearer why there was such an urgency in my father’s request that I do everything to bring this boy back to America. If my father could not go back to the Old Word, he would bring it to America.”
On his final day in San Pietro, DeGrazia once again presses his uncle to send Pasquale across the Atlantic. Settimio, who earlier has joked that his son would fit in perfectly in America because “he doesn’t like to work,” is adamant, closing off the discussion with an indirect rebuke of the, to him, contemptible idea that one would even want to move to some place where it is not necessary to toil, night and day, to wrest a meager living from the soil.
‘There was little to say after I asked the question again. No, he would not let Pasquale come to America. I should tell my father that. Maybe some day. Yes, there would be a different life in America. There one did not have to work with a hoe all year. There one could have a car. Pasquale was still young. Maybe some day. Not now.
I saw the truth in his eyes: Never
I asked him if he would accompany me to find Pasquale so that all three of us could reason together.
“I am sorry,” he said, hiding a deep agitation. “There is work to be done.”
It is not possible within the confines of a short review to detail the full range of modalities and moods touched upon in Walking on Air, from the darkly humorous “The Warrior and his Bride” – a variant on the hoary ethnic joke about hairy Italian women – to the clipped stoicism of the nearly description-free “Ragionare”; one of the most powerful pieces in the collection, this memoir consists almost entirely of a dialogue between DeGrazia and some of San Pietro’s male inhabitants during a day spent working in the fields while discussing the recent suicide of another male resident of the village.
Ultimately, DeGrazia’s mosaic/collage is not just about him and his immediate and extended family, or even about Italian-American life, but about the whole human community, consisting as it does of a species that has been on the move from the moment its first ancestors climbed down from the trees and began sniffing the nomadic air. Walking on Air in a Field of Greens fully deserves its nomination for the Midwest Booksellers Award for non-fiction.
And I’d feel that way even if I didn’t know Emilio DeGrazia.