George de Stefano

The Hunger Saint by Olivia Kate Cerrone

By George de Stefano

Slavery did not end in Sicily until well into the twentieth century.

If you find that statement shocking — or implausible — consider the carusi, young boys who worked under terrible conditions in Sicilian sulfur mines. Their plight perhaps is better described as indentured servitude, but it had much in common with slavery and surely must have felt like it to those enduring its grinding oppression. The carusi, many under the age of ten, worked deep underground in stifling heat, with no protective gear. They inhaled toxic fumes, with only thin bandanas to cover their faces; their bodies became bent and deformed under the weight of baskets of ore they toted on their backs and from squeezing into tight spaces adult miners couldn’t reach. They faced the prospect of death from explosions and cave-ins on a daily basis. They were underpaid, underfed, housed worse than animals, and subjected to beatings and sexual abuse.

If they, or the older miners they assisted, died on the job, the mining companies granted families a morto soccorso, a loan to cover funeral expenses. To pay off the loan, a surviving family member, often another child, would have to work in the mines.

Giovanni Falcone, the Sicilian magistrate assassinated by the Mafia in 1992, once remarked that the most radical thing one can do in Sicily is simply to enforce the law. In 1886, the Italian government enacted a law prohibiting children under the age of nine from working in mines, quarries, and factories. But even that law, hardly a model of progressive legislation, went unenforced in Sicily. Extreme poverty, the remote locations of the sulfur mines in the Sicilian interior, and the indifference of the authorities all helped perpetuate a brutal but highly profitable system of labor exploitation.

The Hunger Saint, the new novella by Olivia Kate Cerrone, portrays the harsh world of the carusi through the experiences of Ntoni, a sensitive twelve-year-old who is sent to work in the Miniera Cozzo Disi sulfur mines after his father, a miner, dies in an accident. Cerrone’s narrative is set in eastern Sicily in the immediate post-World War II years. During this time, the Mafia, allied with big landowners, other powerful business interests, and the political Right, violently repressed union activity; Communist organizer Placido Rizzotto was murdered in 1948, the year Ntoni becomes a caruso.

Ntoni’s struggle to survive the mines is a lonely one; he is forced to draw upon his own reserves of mental and physical strength. There is little solidarity among the carusi and the adults in his life are either cruel or indifferent. His mother, worn down by poverty, rarely shows him affection; more often she rebukes and sometimes beats her son. The local priest performs one of the Catholic Church’s main historic functions in southern Italy, that of reconciling peasants and laborers to their oppression, with the promise of heavenly reward. Father Tringali, who advises Ntoni’s mother to send him to the mines for seven years after the boy’s father dies, heartlessly tells the family that the father had doomed himself to purgatory because he refused to attend Sunday Mass.

Ntoni seeks spiritual guidance from San Calogero, the titular “hunger saint” who purportedly saved the people of Ntoni’s town from famine. He carries a prayer card bearing the saint’s image and consults it when he feels lost and hopeless. In one terrible scene that registers powerfully in Cerrone’s unsparing but restrained prose, Ntoni’s mother takes him and his siblings with her as she rummages through garbage bins looking for salvageable food. While appalled onlookers reproach her (“Cattiva madre! Brutta madre!”), a starving and delirious Ntoni has a vision of San Calogero’s face. But then Ntoni faints and the saint disappears, a fleeting and useless apparition that was just a sick boy’s fever dream.

The only adult to treat him kindly is Ziu Peppi, the company mechanic. For a fee, he procures the documents miners need to leave Sicily to work in France, under better conditions and for better pay. Ntoni learns that his father had paid Ziu Peppi to make such arrangements for him. He is shocked by what he sees as his father’s intention to abandon his family. But the mechanic corrects him: “He wanted better for you, piccolino. Why else would he go?” Ziu Peppi is forced to leave the mines after an accident, but even in absence he is crucial to Ntoni’s eventual liberation.

The Hunger Saint isn’t the first fictional depiction of the carusi. Pirandello wrote several stories about them, and Black Mountain, a 2012 novel by the Australian-Italian writer Venero Armanno, portrayed sulfur mine conditions in the early 1900s. Italian director Aurelio Grimaldi’s 1992 film La Discesa di Aclà a Floristella (Acla’s Descent at Floristella) centered on the title character, an eleven-year-old caruso, who, like Ntoni, dreams of escape via the sea. Oliva Kate Cerrone’s novella is a more than worthy addition to this slender literary and cinematic corpus. In barely 100 pages, and with deep insight and compassion, she recreates an entire world, one of crushing exploitation and misery from which the only escape is immigration.