YOU CAN FIND THIS WEEK’S OTHER FEATURED BOOK, RHETT DeVANE’S “PARADE OF HORRIBLES,” BY SCROLLING DOWN BELOW THIS POST OR BY CLICKING HER NAME ON OUR AUTHORS PAGE. ALSO BELOW THIS POST IS THE 2017 LIST OF SUGGESTED SUMMER READS.
THE BOOK: The Hunger Saint
PUBLISHED IN: 2017
THE AUTHOR: Olivia Kate Cerrone
THE EDITOR: I worked closely with Nicholas Grosso, a wonderful editor.
Fred Gardaphé, Paolo Giordano, and Anthony Julian Tamburri are the founding editors of the press.
THE PUBLISHER: Bordighera Press
SUMMARY: THE HUNGER SAINT is a story of hope and survival set in post-WWII Italy. Hailed by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted and affecting literary tale,” this historical novella follows the journey of Ntoni, a twelve-year-old boy forced to labor in Sicily’s sulfur mines to support his family after his father’s untimely death. Faced with life-threatening working conditions, Ntoni must choose between escaping the mines and abandoning his family. Following tradition, his mother has signed him over to many years of hard labor in exchange for a soccorso morto, literally translating to a “dead loan.” This is essentially a system of indentured servitude that exists between the carusi and the miners they will assist in the mines. Ntoni still conspires for his freedom. As a series of unforeseen events soon complicate his plans, Ntoni realizes that all is not what it seems and to trust anyone might prove to be as fatal as being trapped inside of a cave-in. The Hunger Saint draws from years of historical research and was informed by the oral histories of former miners still living in Sicily today.
THE BACK STORY: It took me about five years to research and produce The Hunger Saint. I first learned about the carusi in 2010 while taking a Sicilian language class in New York City. After some initial research, I discovered that so little had been discussed regarding this history that I eventually led me to journey to Sicily in 2013, where I conducted oral histories with those surviving sulfur miners of neighboring towns in the region of Enna. A countless number of children, some as young as six years old, had suffered and died under such brutal conditions. Their story deserves a much larger spotlight, which compelled me to write The Hunger Saint.
WHY THIS TITLE?: While immersed in research for The Hunger Saint, I visited a small museum in Piazza Armerina in Sicily called Lega Zolfatai, which was founded in 1903. Among the tools and mining history of the sulfur mines that were showcased, were also artifacts, photographs and documents detailing the private lives and struggle of the miners and carusi of the region. While very few laborers were literate, some carusi had managed to learn how to read and write, and a few of their poems were displayed inside the museum. These simple but deeply poignant poems offered much painful insight into the private lives of these boys. The same images of reaching the ocean or flying away into the wide, blue sky, appeared again and again, regardless of who wrote the piece or when it was written. That haunted me. There was a longing there that couldn’t be squelched by hard labor or a brutally inhumane system that exploited the most impoverished citizens for countless decades until labor laws become more strictly enforced. This knowledge eventually inspired the book’s title.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? The Hunger Saint explores a part of Italian history that has gone largely ignored, while immersing readers into a compelling coming-of-age story that speaks to issues of survival, family, faith and human rights. This is an entertaining read as well as an educational one too. Full of suspense, plot twists and vivid imagery, readers will be captivated by this story and its characters.
“Cerrone tells her story in a deliberative prose…perfectly evoking both the setting and time period of this piece of historical fiction. The tale brings to mind American literary realism of the early 20th century–Upton Sinclair, Jack London–as well as the books of midcentury Sicilian writers like Leonardo Sciascia. Cerrone uses Ntoni’s experiences to shed light on the little-remembered soccorso morto practice, which held thousands of children in virtual slavery…A well-crafted and affecting literary tale.”–Kirkus Reviews
..”.a powerful survey that brings to life and personalizes the plight of child laborers and their experiences, highly recommended for any who enjoy historical novels in general and, particularly, those who look for cultural insights and social messages in fiction readings.”–The Midwest Review, April 2017
“Cerrone tells this salt of the earth story in raw, blunt terms, via a naturalistic mode worthy of Emile Zola (as in works such as Germinal, his masterpiece about striking coal miners). She digs beneath the facts of exploitation to dramatize visceral sensations and emotions. The Hunger Saint creates a vivid world of appalling poverty and cruelty. But there is mercy: for this boy, slavery will not be destiny.”–The Arts Fuse
“Powerful writing…This is a story that is very moving, and…certainly memorable.”–San Francisco Book Review
AUTHOR PROFILE: Olivia Kate Cerrone’s fiction seeks to explore the effects of trauma on families and societies in the shadow of poverty, war and displacement. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction won the Jack Dyer Prize from the Crab Orchard Review. She’s received various literary honors, including residencies at Ragdale, the VCCA, and the Hambidge Center, where she was awarded a “Distinguished Fellowship” from the National Endowment for the Arts. In addition to teaching college writing workshops, she has also volunteered with various human rights organizations, including work with veterans, refugees and Afghan women based in Kabul, Afghanistan. She currently leads creative writing workshops through Writers Without Margins, a nonprofit organization dedicated to marginalized voices in Boston, MA.
AUTHOR COMMENTS: In writing The Hunger Saint, I hope to help shed light on this tragic and little-known history of child labor exploitation in Italy. The story also has unfortunate contemporary relevance too. The carusi of today are the child laborers who work in the cobalt mines of the Congo and the sweatshops of Bangladesh, producing the latest designer fashions and home goods. They are refugee children from Syria overworked in clothing factories or children from Sudan and Eritrea forced into the sex-trade industry by human traffickers. Literature fosters greater compassion and awareness.
The miners draped a soiled loincloth over the face of old Misciu and continued to work. No one was allowed to move the body until the shift’s end. Ntoni adjusted the heavy basket of ore between his shoulder blades as he passed Misciu’s pit.
If he peered close enough inside, he could make out the figure, half-concealed in the shadows. Others appeared indifferent as they clawed at the subterranean walls with their mattocks and picks. An unending clink and scrape echoed through the tunnels.
Ntoni moved ahead, eager to return outside where the air was breathable, not thick with heat and dust. He crouched beneath low ceilings, once more imagining purgatory. Perhaps Misciu’s ghost. had gone the same way as Ntoni’s father—trapped in the farthestreaches of the mine. Tonight, he’d try to discover them both.
He took his place in line with the other boys, who climbed a long staircase of earthen steps, formed in zig-zags to help balance the shouldered weight. An arched doorway stood at the top, emitting bright outside light. From there, they’d transport the minerals to the calcaroni, the fat stone furnaces where the sulfur rocks were melted and refined.
Underground, the stairs felt cool beneath his feet. His soles were thick and crusted over with dirt, numb to the pebbles and hard rocks that once pinched and scraped him. He bent his head further to accommodate the ore basket between shoulders. Its weight bowed him over, forcing his neck into a slight twist. There was no getting used to it, even after a month of transporting countless loads. His slow, dragging steps failed to match the steady, dogged pace of the other boys.
Together on the stairs, they formed a slow-moving cloud of shared, fleeting intimacies—the pungent whiff of body odors, the grunts and moans that escaped their lips between bits of passing conversation. Everyone had something to say about Misciu. Rumor was that he’d spent his entire life underground with no family in town to visit each Sunday, when the miners were allowed a day off. It was bound to happen here.
How long would it take to remove the body? Misciu’s soul hung in purgatory like Ntoni’s father’s. Perhaps Saint Calogero might give some sign on his behalf too. Ntoni imagined Misciu’s ghost watching them from the mine’s ceiling, still trapped in his pit beneath the earth. Priests never visited the miners to administer last rites. The men worked too deep underground, some as far as six hundred feet, where the tunnels became hot like ovens, forcing them to wear loincloths and thin caps made of linen and soft canvas. Some wore nothing at all.
Another boy pushed Ntoni from behind.
“Wake up, pazzu. You’re too slow,” he said.
Crazy was the name they’d given him. He’d made the mistake of praying aloud, muttering to himself like the broken drifters who passed through Raccolto begging, displaced by the war. Someone might tear up his Saint Calogero prayer card for fun. The others worked with better efficiency. Why couldn’t he be more like them? He tried to move faster.
Malpelo marched ahead of him in line, imitating Misciu’s choking.
“Eck, eck, eck,” he said.
Everyone tried to listen. He was a bit older than the other carusi, and knew a grisù poisoning when he heard one. If the gas seeped into Misciu’s pit, tainting the air around him, then it was possible that the rest of the mine was not only contaminated but on the verge of an explosion. It didn’t take much to ignite firedamp. Even smoking underground was forbidden. Still, someone would have to test Misciu’s pit to be sure, Malpelo explained. There was no doctor on site to examine the body, no way to sense the gas until it was too late. Perhaps they were already inhaling fresh poison.
Ntoni’s lungs ached as he tried not to breathe.
It’d been an accident with one of the acetone lamps that killed his father almost a year ago. He’d spent the entirety of his life mining, right through the Second World War, until that day the men arrived at their house in Raccolto with their mule-driven carts. Ntoni’s mother knew everything at first sight, even before they carried his father inside—delirious, the entirety of him covered in blood and soot.
“A pezzi,” she’d said.
They brought him back in pieces.
Ntoni still didn’t understand all of the details surrounding the explosion, though he’d asked other miners about what they knew. He reimagined each detail like a montage of stills taken from a newsreel. His father appeared in each scene, working among the other miners until a fallen lamp splashed acetone into the fume-soaked air. Then the fires, the fallen ceiling and collapsed tunnels. Ntoni’s father was pulled alive from the rubble, but not without having his legs crushed first.
Someone behind Ntoni pushed against him hard, impatient to reach the outside. He struggled to move faster and stumbled into Malpelo, knocking over both of their baskets.
Panic brightened the eyes of the boys behind them, and they were quick to continue, sidestepping the fallen rubble and maneuvering up the steps, away from the scene.
“Idiota!” Malpelo yelled.
He picked up his basket and hurried downstairs to tell the miner he assisted, no doubt.
Sciavelli, Ntoni’s own picconiero, would not be pleased if he found out. Mistakes were for the feeble-minded, the ones deserving of punishment. Ntoni crouched along the wall, his body sore. His eyes brimmed. Before him rested the small prayer card of Saint Calogero. He shot a hand over the Hunger Saint, then pushed himself up and made the sign of the cross.
He brought the saint to his lips before fitting the card back into the folds of his loincloth. His sulfur rocks lay scattered in the surrounding pools of gray light. The thought of recovering them all was exhausting. But to do otherwise would mean a beating from Sciavelli. Perhaps he’d even singe his legs with one of the lanterns. It happened to others.
Ntoni retrieved the basket and began loading the rubble back, piece by piece, as carusi moved around him. Seven years.
His mother had agreed to this bargain of time not long after his father’s passing. She signed Ntoni over to the Miniera Cozzo Disi mines to work off the soccorso morto, a loan given to his family on the promise of his labor. The mine assigned him to assist Sciavelli. Ntoni had already turned twelve that spring. Legal enough to work.
When the basket was full, Ntoni lifted it a few inches off the ground before setting it down again. The throb in his arms was immediate, almost dizzying. His nose and brow dripped with sweat; his thoughts raced in circles. There was no escaping the toil. Even if he somehow managed to escape, his family would still be stuck paying off the loan. His younger brother would also be blacklisted from working in any Sicilian mine when he came of age. Only in death could the soccorso morto debt be forgiven.
Ntoni breathed hard, stifling the impulse to moan. Then he reached for the basket and secured it between his shoulder blades, feeling again the bite of its rough bottom ridge as a white-hot pain shot down the length of his spine.
Through the arched doorway, Ntoni reached the surface. Dozens of workers passed before his eyes, some pushing half-ton carts full of rocks along the two-by-four tracks that wound around the camp and led to the calcaroni. The steady purr of machines strung together the drone of voices, punctured by an occasional, indecipherable shout. Charcoal veins of smoke filled the air with rot. Built into the earth were shafts with stairways where carusi and miners emerged and descended.
The calcaroni lined the sloping basin of the camp. They stood in rows, appearing like wide triangular stone huts capped with tall, burning domes. Great plumes of bright yellow smoke wafted up from the open-air furnaces, forming clouds thick enough to obscure the sun. A rolling terrain of rock and dirt edged in around them. Nothing grew here. At the entrance to the furnaces, men noted and weighed the carusi’s baskets to keep account of each load processed.
Once approved, Ntoni moved forward, pulling the bandana around his neck up over his nose and mouth. He raised the basket above his head and deposited the minerals into one of the unlit ovens. Working so close to the kilns made Ntoni feel as if he’d catch on fire. The sulfur had to be burned at the right temperature or else it’d turn to dust. Later, the ore would be smelted into liquid and piped out through a small opening near the base of the shack.
Hundreds of mattoni d’oro, blocks of pure sulfur, stood against the walls, waiting to be shipped away. Ntoni rubbed the wet from his eyes, still stinging from the scorching fumes. He choked on the rancid, burning smoke that blotted out the sky in yellow sulfur clouds, and hurried away from the furnaces.
Released from the weight of his basket, Ntoni’s arms became buoyant. Tension lifted from his chest. He made for Ziu Peppi’s workshop nearby. The mechanic appeared in one of the shop windows, turning a screwdriver into the side of some metallic thing like a crude surgeon. Ntoni waved a hand to catch the man’s attention, but his friend was too absorbed in repairs to notice.
Ziu Peppi adjusted the rim of his thick, square-framed glasses against his nose and parted his lips. His mouth always seemed to hang open as if too small for the mass of crowded teeth that protruded rodent-like from his gums. He didn’t have the make of a miner. His build was slight, a mere extension of his overdeveloped mind, honed training as a master mechanic and translator in Mussolini’s army.
Ntoni sometimes heard his friend speaking French with Rosco, who ran the Miniera Cozzo Disi. Ziu Peppi’s abilities were incredible and strange. Perhaps he’d also forged a special pact with the saints.
The mechanic claimed to have been a good friend of his father’s, and often invited Ntoni to visit his workshop. Once, Ziu Peppi asked what he knew about France.
“Sometimes I heard about the occupation during the war. There’s this café in town where you could listen to the news on their radio,” Ntoni said.
“But your mother never spoke of France? Not with your father?”
“Maybe she did. They never talked about serious things in front of me.”
Ziu Peppi sighed. “Of course not. But eventually you would’ve known. Your father had plans to mine in France. He paid me to help him leave.”
“He wanted better for you, piccolino. Why else would he go?”
In this way, Ntoni learned about the service Ziu Peppi provided. For the right fee, he arranged the paperwork for those illiterate miners who longed to leave Sicily for better pay abroad. Though some returned after a year or two, most never did. Ntoni couldn’t imagine his mother ever approving of such plans, not with his younger brother and sister to raise.
“I kept the money for you,” Ziu Peppi said. “Your father asked me to hold onto it in case something ever happened to him before he got out. He wanted the same opportunity for you. But you must be quiet about it. Don’t tell anyone. The wrong set of ears could ruin everything. Rosco would have my head if he knew.”
“Do you think he told my mother?”
Ziu Peppi shook his head. “Hard to say. Your father could be so quiet and stubborn. But I wouldn’t tell her anything until you’ve made up your mind first.”
Perhaps his father really had intended to abandon them. The war had broken up so many families in one way or another. Ntoni wondered this now as he stood outside of the mechanic’s workshop, waving again to catch his friend’s attention. Then he heard his own name called from behind.
Sciavelli approached, with a loincloth tied around his waist, and sipped from a canteen bottle. Ntoni flinched.
Aboveground, the miner’s skin took on a bloodless, grayish-white coloring that matched his hair and beard. The whole of Sciavelli appeared hard and swollen—muscles stretched taut along his bare arms and chest—and his shoulders, enormous rounded things, glistened with sweat and yellow sulfur dust. His fingers, thick and curved like banana peppers, curled into fists. Hands made for grasping and breaking. Sciavelli glared at Ntoni and frowned.
“Got a new job for you,” he said.
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