Book Un-Review: Intimacy and Italian Migration

I hate book reviews. I hate writing them. I don’t really like reading them. But I recently finished reading a history book I picked up at the library (with my fancy new Wright State University staff library card!) several weeks ago, and I wanted to tell you a little bit about it. So…whatever you want to call that.

A few years ago (it must have been pre-2011 because I wrote about it), I decided I finally wanted to get down to business on trying to understand more about my Italian American history: really specific stuff about Italian immigration, legal hoops they had to jump through, typical family life, etc., etc. And in the course of that, I read two books that were extremely helpful and interesting: Coming to America (1990) by Roger Daniels and Italy’s Many Diasporas (2000) by Donna Gabaccia.

So when I saw a new book with Donna Gabaccia’s name attached to it on the library’s “New Books List” in December, I decided to check it out (literally – I know, haha, library humor). The book is called Intimacy and Italian Migration: Gender and Domestic Lives in a Mobile World (2011) and is edited by Gabaccia, as well as Loretta Baldassar.

I have to say, it wasn’t what I was “hoping” for or what I expected—but that’s my own fault, honestly. If I had investigated a book review (sigh) or even the back cover or the table of contents, I might have realized it probably wasn’t going to include what I was hoping for (more on that in a minute). But I it was like an “impulse buy” (er, impulse borrow) based solely on my existing positive (and, I emphasize, still positive) opinion of Gabaccia. Kind of like if you checked out J. K. Rowling’s new book simply because it was Rowling and then acted all surprised when it wasn’t like Harry Potter, but if you’d read the description, you would have known that. (I have not read Rowling’s new book, just FYI.)


The book includes many interesting articles on Italianness and gender roles, motherhood, marriage, and domesticity. I think my two favorite chapters were “Calculating Babies: Changing Accounts of Fertility Decisions among Italians in Melbourne, Australia” (by Pavla Miller) and “Love Crossing Borders: Changing Patterns of Courtship and Gender Relations among Italian Migrants in Germany” (by Yvonne Rieker), both of which included a lot of oral history and interviews, not to mention subject matter that I found particularly intriguing.

I was also pleased to read in general about “chain migration” — which may have been mentioned in those two previous books but I had perhaps forgotten — and there was talk about “campanilismo,” a term I know I’ve read about before and find positively delightful. (That must sound like an insane way to describe how I feel about those words, but I suppose it comes from having observed something in your own family history over and over again and then finally finding out there’s an actual TERM for it: what joy at finally putting a name to something!)

Intimacy and Italian Migration was a very interesting, informative, and well-written book, but as I said, not what I was hoping for — which could be somethin that simply not exist. If, after I’ve described it, anyone can give me a recommendation for something that may cover what I seek, I’d be glad to have it!

My grandfather Renato was born in Italy. He came to America on the eve of his 21st birthday (that’s a whole other thrilling tale) in 1934. His mother Pia and younger brother Vasco had already immigrated to America in 1933. But his father Quinto came to America in 1920, when Grandpa was 6. To the best of my knowledge, based on the records I’ve found and the story I was always told, Quinto stayed in America for years — like a decade — before returning to Italy to (basically – though it involved a lot of hoops – again, a tale for another time) bring his wife and two sons to the U.S.A.

I remember the first time I heard — from my parents, many years ago — that that’s how it went down, thinking, “What the hell? That seems kind of weird. To just leave your family for years?” Now that I’m older, learned a lot more history, and read the aforementioned books, I realize it wasn’t weird at all for that to be the way with Italian immigrations. Apparently, it was downright common. But my initial knee-jerk reaction of “My god, that must have sucked!” still seems pretty valid. I’m sure it did suck. On many levels.

And so, I’ve wondered from time to time, about a lot of different aspects of how that…worked (or, didn’t work?), particularly with regard to my great-grandparents’ relationship. How do you go from being married with two kids to just not seeing each other for 10 years? Did they write letters? Did they even know how to read/write? I honestly have no idea; it’s probably more likely for him than her, but I really don’t even know. Even if they knew how? Could they afford it? It can’t have been cheap to send international letters, not to mention the time lapse of sending them trans-Atlantic by boat. This is all assuming, of course, that they…well, liked each other. I mean, part of me wants to make the terrible joke about the stereotypical Italian couple that drives each other crazy—(cue movie reference to that scene in Under the Tuscan Sun where Chiara’s mother says of her husband, “I hate him half of the time”!)—but I mean, hey, with all I just learned about semi-arranged or downright arranged marriages in Italy back in the Day (or, quite a long time after what one would really consider “The Day” – scary recent), it’s entirely possible that…hell, maybe they never liked each other to start with? I’m just saying…I have no idea. (They look relatively content in this pic from 1938, though, don’t they?)

Quinto and Pia, 1938

Quinto and Pia, 1938

But that’s some of what I was kind of hoping to read about when I picked up Intimacy and Italian Migration…something “older,” I guess, than what most of the chapters actually discussed. And perhaps it simply doesn’t exist, for the simple truth of the circumstances under which those relationships were forced to take place. If you were a highly educated and filthy rich 1920s Italian, you weren’t going to be in that situation because you either (a) didn’t need to go to America for a “better life,” because yours was pretty darn good already; or (b) if you did need/want to go to America, maybe you had the money to plunk down for all those passenger fares right from the get go (all U.S. anti-immigrant laws and quotas aside, of course- again, a thrilling tale for another time); or (c) at the very least, you could probably go home to visit more often or afford to send lots of letters, and your probably-also-higher-society wife could probably read them and write them (I’m guessing?). But poorer immigrant husbands and wives were probably too busy working, taking care of themselves and (in the wives’ case) the children (to whatever extent possible), without a lot of time (much less knowledge or resources – I don’t know if the particular two in question had it or not) to write or keep letters or diaries that I so wish I could read.

I’ll probably wonder forever. Because some things just don’t exist. I’m pretty sure that if Pia and Quinto had left letters or diaries that I could read, I’ve have them in my hands by this point. But if there’s anything out there along the same lines (but from different people), I’d be interested in reading that.

I suppose my interest in history has (almost) always come back around to being interested in people “I know” — or have seen pictures of in the family photo album or their names on my family tree — or have held their handwritten documents in my hands. This is just another instance of that. I hear (true) stories, and I want to fill in the blanks.

Okay, not a great way to end a book un-review, but… I’ve run out of steam. Honestly, that’s not quite true, but if I don’t cut it off here, I could ramble for hours (pages) about these people. And I’m sure nobody wants that. Or, if you do, ask me questions, and I’ll write more. 🙂

5 responses to “Book Un-Review: Intimacy and Italian Migration

  1. Try these two sources: Dr James Davita, a retired professor of history from Marian University has written several immigrant population studies for the Indianapolis Archdiocese. The one he wrote on Slovenian culture was excellent. He also wrote “Indianapolis Italians” its available on Amazon right now for about $20. You might check ebay for a used one. Also, there’s a really active historical / cultural heritage bunch here for Italians. You can check out their website
    Then there’s always wishing for a time travel machine to finally be invented…that would be cool 🙂

  2. Joseph L. Tropea

    Take a look at Catterina DeCarlo Davia – A West Virginia Donkey” Women’s Studies; 42:369–389, 2013.

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