Love & Loyalty: An Immigrant Italian Mom Raising Her Family of Twelve in the Shadow of a Mafia Crime by Josephine Pasquarello, Dorrance Publishing Co., 2017, pp. 317, $20.00
Reviewed by Isabella Perri
Josephine Pasquarello’s self-published memoir Love & Loyalty tells an inspiring story of the aftermath of a mafia crime, motherhood, and the trauma family secrets can cause. Located in South and Southwest Philadelphia during the 1950s and 1960s, Pasquarello’s story details how her mother Romania, nicknamed Ro, raised her twelve children by herself after her husband Mike passed away. Throughout her whole life, Ro and her oldest children kept the truth of their father’s death a secret from one of the youngest children in their large family: the book’s author Josephine Pasquarello, who found out decades later what really happened to her father.
Since Love & Loyalty is a self-published memoir, Pasquarello tells her story her way. It reads as if you as the reader are sitting down with Pasquarello and having a conversation about her life story. Even though the book could have benefitted from an editor to help with minor issues involving typographical errors and the organization of the sequence of events, this should not deter anyone from reading Pasquarello’s authentic memoir.
When I met Josephine Pasquarello during our interview at Arcadia University, where I attend graduate school, speaking to her felt very similar to reading her words. She is not the type to hide how she feels. She is bold, friendly, and sincere, all of which was clear to me before I even met her. Most of all, she is brave for sharing her family story despite this being an immensely emotional subject for her.
The subtitle on the memoir’s book cover hints at the truth kept hidden from Pasquarello: “An immigrant Italian mom raising her family of twelve in the shadow of a mafia crime.” This subtitle paints Love & Loyalty as perhaps just another mafia story, but it is so much more than that. What shines about this real-life story is that it does not glorify the Italian Mafia as we often see in films like The Godfather and Goodfellas. Instead, Pasquarello’s memoir showcases how a mafia crime affects the family of the victim for the rest of their lives, a side of these stories that is often overlooked.
Despite always mourning the husband she loved and having to raise twelve children on her own, Ro persevered and, based on Pasquarello’s narrative, always remained a strong-willed, devoted mother. What is fascinating about Ro that Pasquarello emphasizes throughout her memoir is that despite the poverty the family themselves faced after Mike’s death, she was very generous to those that had even less than her. Pasquarello recounts a time when her mother did not hesitate to take in a mother and her kids while they were stranded in the snow. Ro also would give away some of the household’s food to a homeless man and always made time to pray and attend Mass every morning. Overall, Ro seemed to have been a very forward-thinking, caring woman whose legacy is now forever cemented in this memoir.
When her husband died, Ro felt forced to keep the truth behind his death a secret. Pasquarello reveals this secret in the beginning of the memoir even though she herself did not find out what truly happened until she was in her fifties. The family told everyone—even their own youngest in the family—that Mike died by suicide. At that time, suicide was shameful, so the Pasquarello’s were often shunned and even had to move to Southwest Philadelphia to be in a neighborhood where people did not know much of the family’s history. Pasquarello even tells many stories of the prejudice she faced as a dark-skinned Italian in a neighborhood with many Irish residents. For example, Pasquarello recounts times when she was called racial and ethnic slurs, many of which were not even slurs aligned with her white race and Italian ethnicity, showcasing how colorism often impacted how certain Italians were perceived and treated. On the other hand, the narrative also contains plenty of heart-warming accounts of how Pasquarello bonded with her family and others in the neighborhood, and often mentions her mother’s home-cooked Italian meals.
Pasquarello makes the right choice in revealing the truth of the circumstances surrounding her father’s untimely death at the beginning of the memoir instead of making the reader wait for it. Rather than pandering to shock value, Pasquarello simply reveals the secret openly, which must have been the most healing for her and is quite moving to witness as a reader.
If anything, this memoir is about the dangers of omertà, the code of silence that is the pinnacle of not just the Italian Mafia, but also Italian culture itself. It is not uncommon for Italian and Italian American families to hold secrets from both the public and even from each other. Ro took this secret to the grave and many of Pasquarello siblings never told Josephine Pasquarello the truth either. Part of that seemed to be in favor of the mafia and to prevent them from pursuing the family further, but another part seemed to be the secretive nature Italians take on when it comes to what they perceive to be something shameful, something that is dirty laundry that should not be aired out.
Love & Loyalty not only depicts the trauma of a husband and father suddenly dying, but it also showcases how secrets strain rather than strengthen families. What stands out about Pasquarello’s life story is that she is one of the few in her family who is not afraid to bring this secret to light. Pasquarello’s story taught me how facing the truth rather than continuing to hide it can be healing and liberating. Pasquarello’s bravery in speaking the truth despite the shock and trauma surrounding it inspired me to stop feeling so shameful about my own family secrets, a valuable lesson many Italian and Italian American families need.
Pasquarello has more family stories to tell. She is currently working on her next family narrative about her grandparents’ journey to the United States, which she has mentioned to me also reveals another family secret. This next story is coming despite all the backlash Pasquarello has received from her family for telling their story and putting their secret out in the world. Love & Loyalty holds all of Josephine Pasquarello’s immense courage as she has broken her family’s generational cycle of hiding the family secret(s), something that should make her proud.
Eve Heads Back by Joanne Leva, Kelsay Books, 2020, 103 pp., $18.50
Review by Amy Small-McKinney
At first blush, Joanne Leva’s Eve Heads Back seems deceptively simple. I mean what is simpler (or more humorous) than God walking into a bar? The quandary is that God might have said, “Let there be light,” but it is Eve’s Zippo that “pierces the darkness.” Eve’s one action is both a “tribute” and an act of defiance. This is Leva’s modern Eve—somewhere between wanting to please and refusal to bow—the impulse to apologize and humble herself to God while becoming fully and undeniably alive, on her own terms. Becoming “the squeaky wheel.”
It should be noted that Eve Heads Back is Leva’s second collection focused on Eve. Her first collection, Eve Would Know, also with Kelsay Books, introduced her contemporary cigarette-rolling Eve. Though both books explore the character of Eve, rest assured that Eve Heads Back is more than a continuation; it contains its own compelling arc.
And Leva is a patient poet. Nothing is revealed too quickly; the poems unravel like life. Still, it becomes clear that her short poems and minimalist language contain the uncontainable—a startlingly lovely and immensely complicated transformation of one woman. Often, within this minimalism are surprising images, exemplified in her poem “Eden Reimagined and Exotic.” Like the universe—like the possibility of a God—these images are both unknowable and satisfying:
and buttermilk sky
illuminate the night.
in phantom shade.
of rock and flora
rendered in green-gray;
a paradise teeming
with socially engaged nudes,
and oversized fruit.
feasts on cherries.
In the high distance,
veiled creatures take flight.
Within seven sections, Leva moves deliberately toward acknowledgement that nothing is without duality. Leva slyly utilizes language that reminds us that everything contains both darkness and light. For instance, in “A Sprinkling of Lime,” she begins: “Keen cold viridian. / Origin of soil.” Viridian is a green pigment; it also contains a poisonous arsenic. Still, she tells us, this gorgeous confusion of deep green and arsenic is the “origin” of soil, the earth.
Dichotomies and dualities are seamed throughout the book. In “Eve’s American Dream,” Eve delivers a speech “on a lit stage” in the garden. “The audience // leans in / to listen // as a statuesque / part myth part // modern woman / steps forward.”
But when we reach section four, “Interlude: Meditation on Loss,” something shifts. We are no longer in the garden, though this is a decaying backyard of sorts—one of malevolent figures and streets where a toothless man is encouraged to kiss a twelve-year-old. Here, we ask who is God and who is Father? Who is this father who warns an eight-year-old girl:
Be a good girl,
my dad said,
pointing to a chair,
or they’ll put you
in one of these
and fry you like an egg.
This God/Father was not kind. Still at the end of this section, something garden-like, a place in which the speaker lacks nothing, is finally discovered: “your long / and leafy limbs” and “your sheer / and speckled share.” In the final line, she tells us, “I have hope.” She reassures her readers that she has found her own garden.
The courage of this author, as she returns to her flawed and very human protagonist, Eve and Eve’s family—Adam, Cain and Abel, and daughters—becomes clear. Even in the face of expulsion and cruelty and confusion, Eve/modern woman will not stop discovering who she is and where she belongs. Everything contains both the ordinary and the pure, even Cain’s food blown from his mouth while Adam feeds him “consecrates the floor.”
Even in section six, “Interlude: Daughters,” while Eve comes to understand she is powerless to force her own daughter to bend to her will, she offers her abiding love; her daughters will never be expelled from her love. They will “know / how far I’ve come” and how “it took this long.” By the final section, “In The Beginning, So In The End,” this poet “keeps her word” to her readers and offers herself “diligently” even “in the fog of fear.” Despite this fear, Leva writes, in “Ode To Eve:”
You are an elevator pitch
You are the compelling contrarian
and counter-intuitive timing.
You are an informercial
entering a room,
the 20-word delivery
of a thousand atoning scriptures.
In the final poem, “Mystery Gift,” Leva gives readers what we need to hear during our own time of chaos and confusion. Despite our fear, past and present, we do go on:
A drama that springs
from everyday life.
Eve is the City
to the past,
an old fear
that compels the first
and final peril.
And so it goes.
Joanne Leva’s Eve Heads Back is a gift, a reassurance, a sacrament offering her readers grace and hope and recognition.
Unearthed by Federica Santini, Kelsay Books, 2021, 44 pp., $16.50
Reviewed by Nicole Greaves
Fredrica Santini’s keen intellect and folkloric mind merge in her recent book of poems, Unearthed, which feels wholly organic, coming to life seamlessly as spring, yet it is a curated garden, like Castello Ruspoli in Vignanello, Italy. Ultimately, the work shifts into pure song. These poems bring voice to the Earth itself and to women, whose legacy is language, spoken and unspoken, that becomes stronger through affliction. The book is divided into two sections: “Easter” and the title section, “Unearthed,” that work symbiotically to compress time through archetypes, language, and landscapes where readers enter as harbingers of themselves.
Some scholars believe in St. Bede the Venerable’s proclamation that the English word “Easter ” originates from the pre-Christian fertility goddess Eostre, celebrated in spring. Others say it comes from the Latin phrase in alibis, the plural of alba or dawn, transitioning to eostarum in the Old High German, from which our current English derives. Obviously, in the Christian tradition, the idea of Easter centers around resurrection and cleansing. Given the origins, meanings, and contexts of “Easter,” it is an ideal title for the first section of Unearthed.
In “Easters,” 17 poems slip together like paper dolls cut from vellum, each their own selves but knotted together in a fist of milk, morning, and tribulation. The opening poem, “Rising She Spreads,” conjures a birth, perhaps a premature one: “Cold and wide her face opens up / to the fall of flakes from above.” As she “dreams” of woodland animals in “meadows of ice,” she is “Wrapped in the white light of dawn, that at “twenty-four” becomes the “veil of a bride.” At “twenty-nine: swollen with milk.”
The final couplet moves into the strain of the domestic yet still feels sacred. “Snow” becomes “plaster” and “the place” becomes the one “where the ceiling collapses.” This layering of metaphor connects a genesis of an Eden-like medieval world to an apocalyptic one, a parallel threaded throughout this section.
In subsequent poems, Santini artfully moves into “the place,” “In the garden of women” / where “the weed-foxes are living.” In the section’s title poem, the reader is invited into the landscape, “we walk in the sparse light.” We grasp hands with a chain of women, “a rotten egg,” “a witch,” as “silver bracelets of smoke / twirled around our elegant wrists.” The concluding couplet unifies the metaphysical and the physical: “Those who love us / breathe with our same mouth.”
The speaker moves into that apocalyptic world that floods, where “The Ocean sags under its weight, / its dull stomach heavy with / the knotted lump of a dark wedding cake.” The plague is upon us: “A last traffic island is alive / with the gleaming eyes of the rats.” The final poem in this section is the world “After the Flood,” that subset political “of a county crumbling in pain” reviving:
there where the world was emptier
the ringing of birth
resounds the loudest
our new day germinates
in the outstretched shapes
of glowing thin roots.
In the second section, which bears the book’s title, the first and longest poem, “Arachne in Bloom: An Evocation,” conjures the skilled weaver Arachne who transforms into a spider after committing suicide, one of the most well-known stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here, the speaker asserts her core declaration that is the heart of the narrative. She writes:
…If punishment comes as a gift
shame forgone and rules eaten up,
if it’s penance, this smokey velvet of skin,
rise, woman, no more yourself
but as a truer you/her, as she who was you
before and will be now and always.
While the speaker commands Arachne to take delight in her anointment in the new world, “feel the smooth gilded / coin of the sun,” she also seems to be speaking directly to the reader, “she who was you” in the connection of time. She charges: “Wake to your new thread. Rise.” Athena’s jealousy looms overhead as does her remorse for what she did and speaks to how women belong to and are broken by and from one another.
Then there is a “Waiting” period, time in the garden:
Deep down, we spread out our
fingers, we grow hands as tense
as tendrils stretched out
in no known direction but
the unbending will to return.
Always that will to ascend. In “Song of the Recluse,” the lyrical song of the body moves into complete liberation, “the body / free of itself.” In “Substrata,” no matter how deeply the you/she is submerged—“well at the end of the well a lake / under the lake a sea of glass at the bottom”––and beyond, there is the reminder that
You are the small crack
in the ice, the covert
spring coaxing the mad
rush to the surface.
Santini’s lyricism is such a rush, moments of walking the museum, gazing at a stunning landscape to turning the corner to a Botticelli, a Venus on the Half-Shell. In the title poem, Santini writes: “Can you unearth yourself. With long precise strides, / from heart and hearthstone?” The collection affirmably answers its own rhetoric. You will find yourself excavating these poems again and again because with each reading, you discover something else hidden in the “dead flowers” and the “forest ablaze” that is the past making us anew.
Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster by Karen Tintori, Atria Books, 2002, 273 pp., $17.84
Reviewed by Mark Spano
Spoiler Alert: Karen Tintori’s book, Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster, is not for the faint of heart. This story is a meticulous recreation of an event that took place over a hundred years ago, in a place that very few but those personally touched by this event remember or talk about.
The Cherry Mine disaster is likely one of the worst mining disasters in US history, two hundred and fifty-nine died, many more injured, and families shattered. And, it is families, friendship, and loyalties that make the reading of this daunting tale worthwhile. Tintori has provided facts, statistics, and vivid descriptions. It is, though, the very human considerations that set this book apart.
Like any good storyteller, Tintori introduces us to a vast cast of characters. These vividly real people who could be our own grandparents or great-grandparents bring life to the meticulous data the author provides. Tintori clearly has skin in this game; her grandfather was a survivor of the disaster.
“Laws of nature do not make exceptions for nice people,” author Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us. “A bullet has no conscience; neither does a malignant tumor or an automobile gone out of control. That is why good people get sick and get hurt as much as anyone.” So, why must we recall and retell such grim narratives?
First and foremost, we must know these things so we can know who we are. Tintori came from sturdy stock. She and we need to know such things about ourselves because they shape our responses to the world that is often not very pretty. Also, the Cherry Mine Disaster did lead to substantive changes in child laborer laws and workmen’s compensation programs.
Inspired by a refrain from her girlhood—”Your grandfather survived the Cherry Mine disaster,”Karen Tintori began a search for her family’s role in the harrowing tragedy of 1909. She uncovered the stories of victims, survivors, widows, orphans, townspeople, firefighters, reporters, and mine owners, and wove them together to pen Trapped, a riveting account of the tragic day that would inspire America’s first worker’s compensation laws and hasten much-needed child labor reform.
Disasters reveal to us the weakness of our systems and the strengths of our fellow humans, and this is the achievement that Karen Tintori has offered us in Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster.
Last Stop on the 6 , by Patricia Dunn, Bordighera Press, 2021, pp. 286,
by Theodora D. Patrona
Patricia Dunn’s first adult novel (after her first YA novel, Rebels by Accident) is the coming of age of a young actress/activist from the Bronx, in self-imposed exile in Venice, LA. This fast-paced Italian American bildungsroman oscillates between heartbreaking admissions and funny awkward moments. It starts when the protagonist’s mother, Rose, sends protagonist, Angela Campanosi, a one-way ticket to return home for her brother’s wedding. Angela hadn’t spoken to her beloved brother Jimmy for years, feeling guilty for the accident that paralyzed him and ruined his future as a young actor, some ten years before. A series of surprises follow: the groom-to-be disappears and the bride-to-be plans to flee the country as a war nurse in the impending war in Iraq. Simultaneously, Angela and the best man in the wedding realize that the local Mafia is threatening her family for gambling loans. In the temporal setting of the early nineties, with the war Angela has been fighting to stop imminent, this passionate anti-war activist is now giving her own battles against her painful past in the home battlefield at Pelham Bay. (Un)fortunately, some things appear to be familiar: the social control of the gossipy Italian neighbors eavesdropping on the family’s every move, her ex-lover and best friend Billy, her controlling mommy, her alcoholic father, even good Italian home-cooked meals.
Yet, appearances can be deceiving since this novel seems to be all about transgressions. Moving in circles beyond the asphyxiating ethnic molds, Dunn’s heroines and heroes trod off the beaten track of social conventions and reader expectations and, also, ethnic stereotyping. To begin with, the quintessential Italian family unit appears to be completely distorted. While the pushy matriarch is still there, Angela’s mother is a rather sickly figure who spends her time in her room and works from there, while she shares her home with two husbands, ex and current.
Traditional gender roles seem further interestingly twisted with the female as the breadwinner and the second husband, Mike, the unemployed kitchen recluse and cook. Angela’s surprises keep coming: her macho Italian American best friend and lover, Billy, has come clean after living on the edge as a heroin addict; he works in the family’s bug business, an inspiration for his artistic pursuits and finds love in the arms of his male agent. More shattering of the bella figura and shocks follow, with Angela confronting her father’s lingering alcoholic problem parallel to his AA meetings, and his new alcoholic girlfriend. Even the local Mafia defies the laws of terror and violence, bearing gifts for the new couple and dispelling Angela’s fears in the light of new revelations.
In this playful mood, Dunn brilliantly mocks the norms that have long defined novelistic ethnic writing; she proceeds to uncover the hybridity of the Italian American familial unit even in its own supposedly “quintessential” borough of a home. Freeing her protagonists from their restrictive roles as ethnic subjects, Dunn underscores the fluidity of their lives, the unpredictability of tomorrow, while history is repeated and another war begins in Iraq this time while yet again protestors flood the streets. What does remain the same at the core of the story and the ethnic subject is what is most essential: the substance of the family unit, love and forgiveness, the shelter of one’s home and the warmth of the nourishing meal that signifies homecoming, always under the protective gaze of the plastic-wrapped saints kept on the nightstand. This, ultimately, seems to be the rewarding end of one’s journey, their last stop as the title puts it.
The Hated Ones by Mike Fiorito, Bordighera Press, 2021, pages 135, $18.00
Reviewed by Elizabeth Jaeger
The Hated Ones by Mike Fiorito takes place in 1970’s Astoria Queens. The book is a novel comprising twenty interwoven short stories, segments of the narrator’s life. Each reading increases our intimacy with the narrator as we see him interacting with friends, girlfriends, and family. Early in the first story, we learn his life is a troubled one. His home is dysfunctional; his mother enjoys her wine, a small indulgence compared to his father’s gambling problem. Unfortunately, school, which is supposed to be a safe place, is anything but a sanctuary. His teacher, identifying him as a troubled soul, takes advantage of him, luring him into the bathroom where a relationship of sexual abuse escalates until the school year draws to an end.
The themes of escape, addiction, and hope permeate the stories. The narrator and his friends escape poverty and pain by smoking weed and blasting music. One can almost hear a soundtrack of Yes and Led Zeppelin playing in the background while reading each story. Music is key, a reminder that something beyond the moment exists. The narrator not only risks getting shot by would-be thieves because he refuses to turn over his radio, but he also swipes his mother’s jewelry so that he can buy himself a guitar. Alcohol and marijuana dull the pain, the fear that life will not get better. And for some, the only out is death. Of one friend, the narrator observes, “Unlike the rest of us who will drag through our failures and disappointment, Joey got out through the escape window.” Music and drugs are temporary routes of escape, unlike death, which is permanent.
Despite the heavy themes, there is also an element of humor. The narrator lands his first job where he answers phones in his church’s rectory. He is still a young kid and boredom dictates his behavior more than piety. To alleviate this feeling of restlessness, he occupies himself by making prank calls. Using the church’s Rolodex of contact information, he randomly prank calls a woman. When she answers, he responds, “This is God calling you.” It’s hard not to chuckle, but as the conversation continues the reader is clued in to the woman’s loneliness. Her husband has died and she asks the narrator to please tell her husband she said, “hello.” How quickly one goes from laughter to tears as the reader realizes this prank call may be the only contact this woman has with another human being. The world indeed can be a lonely place.
Regardless of how bad life may be there is always hope, a prayer for a better tomorrow. The narrator joins a band, and for a while, he dreams of a better future. The band, however, is mediocre, but none of them seem to mind. “We weren’t afraid to play badly, or loudly, and sometimes we even sounded okay. And all of this playing and listening occurred in a chamber of marijuana smoke. Pot helped elevate my listening to music, it also supplied the trapdoor I needed to escape the deadened steel factory prison of Long Island City.” In the end, music doesn’t elevate the narrator out of his current life, but admission to New York University, along with a scholarship, does.
The narrator is successful. He does elevate himself out of the neighborhood and the life in which he grew up, but with distance between himself and his past, he is able to look back at his youth with a feeling of nostalgia:
All that remains are the songs. They are echoes from a past.
They’re not so bad. And the guitar playing is pretty good. I hear
Amy’s voice soaring high about the keyboard notes. The music
remains placed high on a misted mountain peak. I can still feel the
flight of that solo. When I hear the song, I can still see the azure
blue of the sky I was reeling in.
The Hated Ones is a refreshing reminder that even though our youths may have been less than perfect, we can’t help but look back with a sense of wonder, a sense of nostalgia, knowing we survived, and were able to move beyond that which felt oppressive at the time. It is also a beautiful testament to the resilience of youth. Mike Fiorito’s writing is brilliant, descriptive, and captivating. He skillfully breathes life into his characters, so it’s hard not to cry when tragedy strikes. The narrator is a character that will remain with me for a long time.