Book Review: Given Away: A Sicilian Upbringing by Marianna Randazzo


In Sicily, 1935 a four-year child walks away from her loving family, her mother, her sister and an infant brother, with a great-aunt for a vacation. She spends the next eight years of her life absent from their lives. It was not an abduction nor was it an adoption. Tina lives in a one-room house in one of the poorest regions of Sicily. She sleeps between a loving aunt and a deranged uncle. She shares her breakfast with goats and chickens while living in the shadow of fascism. The child grows up while WW II ravages the town. Her school is taken over by German soldiers and the things like bread and eggs that were once plentiful, no longer exist. Less than 25 kilometers away her family leads a very different life. After eight years, she returns home to find her childhood interrupted again. This time sickness, warfare and destruction are her enemies. In wartime Europe childhood does not exist. The child witnesses and experiences many disturbing things from her uncouth, unsanitary living conditions to the failed paratroopers dangling from trees during the allied invasion. Tina is a survivor. She is able to forgive those who took so much away from her. Her spirit trumps over adversity during the war times within and around her. As she grows older, she struggles to keep the harsh realities of World War II and abandonment at a distance through her sense of humor, imagination and determination. By the age of 15, her fate is sealed, again, without her permission. To gain passage to America she must accept the role as a war bride. A tyrannical,overbearing, bootlegging aunt in America arranges the match. Tina must live under her roof and her rules until her citizenship is secure. Tina has earned the right to complain, yet at no point does she play the victim. At times, her nonjudgmental stance is disquieting. Despite circumstances that could be categorized as abusive and undeniably negligent. Tina respects her parent's decisions and sacrifices herself for the greater good—even when it is not apparent to her. Despite a raging war, Tina thinks about her family and her friends more than about the horrors of the battle fought across the continents, even when she is a victim of the German soldiers’ mockery and the American soldier’s unusual ways. She is remarkably clever and insightful. The plot and setting are true to life in the period of the past. It will bring the history of war torn Europe to life, providing us a lens upon our collective past that define our unique lives. Tina triumphs against all odds with an unconditional love for a family that despite its profound flaws gave her the fortitude to carve out a successful life on her own terms. Given Away,A Sicilian Upbringing, demonstrates that even in the midst of the most horrendous conditions of war, without trivializing the historical tragedy, perseverance prevails as Tina declares what is rightfully hers.

"...not Chick-lit. BUT it's a book for chicks and a great lit."

That's How Marianna pitched to the blog. And by those words I thought to myself, "Hmm... why not give this not-chick-lit a try."

Great, great book. So I am going to write the shortest review.

Set in the era of 'Il Duce' regime when Italy was a bloc of fascists and illiterates, Marianna drops in tidbits of info during the period and keeps us informed about the political events as years pass by. Such background gives relevance to the story-line and gives the reader a clear and accurate imagination of the physical, mental and social states as well as the political institutions of the Italian citizenry in the early nineties right to the 1950s.

Written in third-person with easy-to-grasp language, the story is mostly told in the point-of-view of Tina. So being the main character, more is expected from Tinnuzza-and she gives you more than expected!

The novel opens with her being little, as the blurb states. It highlights all the events of this little girl's rough childhood and portrays her as a character we all sympathize to-yet adore!

At a young age, Tina is given out to her grand Aunt, Zia Vittoria, forcing her to evacuate the home she has known all her life and her family. Her stay with her great aunt Vittoria and his husband is not all blissful as her sister Lena thinks (since She's envious her little sister is taking a 'vacation' to the countryside they've only heard good things about). Her Uncle Gianni's house is a one- room house with about eighty percent occupied by the animals they rear (Yes, inside!), her new school teacher hates her and her uncle Gianni beats Zia Vittoria... every other night. The guy's a moron (not an uncommon trait in men during that age), but you will find him adorable because even if it's Tina who gets on his testy nerves he vents out all that anger on Vittoria and never lays a hand on Tina (... at least I found that adorable ). Vittoria is barren and can't give birth so it's not surprising she loves Tina with all her heart. Also, she has a poor fashion sense (shockingly Marrianna makes us aware that is uncommon in poverty-stricken Italy. Milan was the same as it is now) and holds on to her only pair of boots which have become somewhat of a signature look. Tina hates it at Vittoria's, telling her siblings whenever she comes back for Christmas, "The place has no trees!" (I would have broken a rib or two out of laughter if I was in that era). But no matter how much she wants to return for good, her mother wouldn't let her, and her father keeps being indifferent about the matter.

The question that plagued me most, was why Tina was Given Away (Err, no pun intended). I really didn't find a specific answer (ha! You think I'd share!), but I know who gave her away, and I can rant about her. Tina's mum, Sarina, takes the attribute of a 'baby factory'. This woman looooves to produce and she's prolific as a doe. Yet she doesn't bother taking care of the babies. Raised from a family of artists in some kind of craft, she has a keen eye for what's in fashion and what's not. Having a very generous heart and providing for the poor, questions like the above got me confused. If you can care for people who are not your own, why can't you care for your daughter? Francesco, Tina's father, is the fascist. He aligns himself with Mussolini knowing he is going to be raised above ranks... until Mussolini gets trampled by Adolph Hitler and the Nazi forces.

Tina's family is one big extended Italian family (shocker she didn't have Her Big Fat Italian Wedding). There are all her artistic aunts and uncles on her mother's side, great aunts, great uncles, grand parents. On Sarina's side the women take procreation too seriously. And in those days there was no mention of rubber, IUDs and foam tablets. But hadn't they heard of coitus? It's intriguing how Marianna makes the novel so crowded yet it's not difficult to remember each of those relatives since they've all got memorable traits. Zia Nancy with a tendency to spit (on Tina). Vincenzo, an OCD uncle. Nino, another uncle with a good eye for Haute Couture. Giannuzza, an aunt who depises her sister Sarina for being one of those women who produce more than they will take care of.

Soon there's war in Italy. War brings poverty, starvation and... a fall in Fashion trends. Sarina's reduced to selling her clothes for bread. And the whole family lives on an Orange-a-day diet. Marrianna describes this scene of abject poverty and violence so vividly readers experience a flashback to that era of Nazi domination in Europe, monochrome pictures with children, women and the old shivering in their thin clothes along the streets amidst an ongoing parade of Nazi forces to instill fear in the vulnerable. During the war, Tina's life is still alternating between her family home at Christmas and her great aunt's. It's important to note that in Sicily where her family resides there are no severe bombings, but in Vittoria the bombings even occur in schools, wounding and killing children. It's rather unfortunate that when Tina goes back home, there's no food even if the risk of having a grenade dropping on your lap is lower, but that isn't the same story in Vittoria where she's feasting on lots of porcupine (sweet!) from Gianni's hunting expeditions.

As the novel goes on there's lots of tragedy and growth on the part of Tina. She's no longer the little girl we used to know, but is developing into a grown woman who has taken to writing journals Marianna keeps giving us a peek into by introducing a chapter with 'Tina's Journal' and taking a swift turn from thirdperson to first-person narrative. I always looked forward to reading Tina's journals since they offer a fresh perspective from Marianna's (No offense taken, Marianna? I hope. You look ageless in your photos. ). And Tina also begins to develop an interest in singing. Her popular songs are Let's Go and Mamma (she wrote them herself). But does she have a beautiful voice? Hmm.... let's note that Italians are better of doing Opera.

Soon Tina has to live for America where she works diligently, indulges in an entanglement with Tony (romance we'd been waiting for, for ages), and whenever she gets the chance she records a track and sends it to her parents who are not faring well after Mussolini's fall.

Throughout the book, themes such as love, family, responsibilities are touched on. These themes are portrayed beautifully by Marianna. I was dazzled by the structure of this novel since the continuous flow of events were rhythmic. There's no suspense in this tale, even towards the end. There's no feeling of oh-I-want-to-see-how-this-ends. Everything was soothing and relaxing. With everything falling into place. It was like reading a memoir. In the end, Marianna explains how each and every one of the characters' lives turned out: some were successful, others were not and for others the reproduction rate kept increasing.

Villain role in this novel could be taken up by Zia Nancy who brought Tina to America and wanted to dictate every aspect of her life including rebuking her for indulging in a little binging. But I do understand her, she plays matchmaker of the family and it's hard to get a groom for a plump bride-in those times. And Uncle Gianni stops being Villain once you forget all the maltreatment inflicted on his wife. Arch-villain would go to Hitler, though he doesn't make a physical appearance, his actions contribute to a majority of Tina's suffering.

There isn't supposed to be humor in this book, but sometimes the plight of the characters sends me into gales of laughter. Take for example this excerpt, taken during the time the people of Vittoria had to evacuate their places of residence due to the appearance of American forces to rescue them from the Germans. American paratroopers were mistakenly caught in trees. And this happens when the people were evacuating in a bunch:

'Throughout the fields hundreds of children were busy cutting up and stealing the yards of silk parachute materials from their ropes. The material would prove to be a sturdy cloth for the desperately needed clothes. A torn beige parachute created knickers, blouses, brassieres, and within days, strips from parachute portions were sported by children as new short pants.'

Never in my blogging years did I ever think I will pick a title like this to review, and little did I know I was going to give it a.....

5-star rating.

Given Away, A Sicilian Upbringing is available at Amazon.

Too much sorrow, too much domestic violence, too much hunger and too much excitement. I didn't mind the throughly informative Sicilian education. One history lesson I didn't want to doze off to (shocker!).

Somewhere in this novel, I wasn't blind to the fact that this fiction, uh, has lots of facts in it. And Marianna, I would do a little snooping-for my own benefit, if you don't come out. It would be good to know all these happened in real life.

My work not done here. Off to post my review on Goodreads.

Well, I said I will do a short review didn't I?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review, I guess you liked it!

    Given Away is a story inspired by true events. I don't think I could have made all that stuff up. They do say truth is stranger than fiction.