The Human Side of Genealogy

Glimpsing History through Fiction

by Kathleen Spaltro

Lucia Santa Angeluzzi-Corbo, widow of two men, raises five children in her forty years on Tenth Avenue, and through all of this, she embodies the courage, loss, tragedy, and victory that thread together countless tales of immigrant life.

First published in 1965 and televised in 1988, with Sophia Loren in the title role, Mario Puzo's early novel The Fortunate Pilgrim remained its author's own favorite work. Having read it three times, I come back to it for more than its simple story of an Italian matriarch surviving her immigration to New York City.

Writing of Lucia Santa's gossiping with her neighbors, the narrator notes, "The women talked of their children as they would of strangers." America robs them of the children of whom they dream, faithful to the old ways. By emigrating from Italy, the mothers themselves had slain these impossible dream-children, and now they uselessly defend the customs of their deserted homeland.

The novel also depicts with great feeling the dilemma of their antagonists, their children born in America. Italian at the core, American on the surface, they painfully struggle to reconcile contradictory demands and impulses.

Encouraged by her American teachers to reach beyond her present lot, Lucia Santa's brightest child, Octavia, finds her world a barrier: "Octavia began to lose her dreams. Now it seemed that the teachers she had loved had really tricked her with their compliments, with their urgings to find a better life, a life she could not afford to seek. They had sold her an ideal too expensive for her world."

The immigrants lose their children to America, where the children struggle to belong in ways that their parents cannot comprehend. In brief, this tells the story of countless fallings out between the generations. Their descendants only dimly perceive the price parents and children paid to call themselves Americans.

And yet -- "they had never loved their country of birth; it meant nothing to them. For centuries its government had been the bitterest enemy of their fathers... What good fortune to be safe here in America."

In this, they differ from many more recent immigrants, who have come to America, not because they have fled their homeland, but because their much-loved land cannot give them work or political safety.

These immigrants resist more fiercely the pressures to become American felt by older generations. They sometimes feel that America will never accept their distinctive identity. They also sometimes fail to understand that these earlier immigrants suffered the same pain, although they steeled themselves to pay the price of acceptance.

On the other hand, the highly romanticized saga of immigration lore favored by the earlier immigrants' descendants also ignores the truth of their pain. A more truthful history would acknowledge the ambivalence and loss inherent in becoming American. To its credit, Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim, although a fictional story, is really true to the history shared by many.

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