My grandparents, as far as I know, made one long journey during their lives, from Fontegreca, Italy, to Lawrence, Mass. The weeks over land and then across the Atlantic by ship divided their world into before and after - had they returned to their village in Campania, they likely would have been known as “Americani,’’ the sheer fact of their crossing having changed them forever.
How much their journey was one from which they could never fully return, I only gleaned long after they both were gone, when I visited the Italian village where my great aunt - who’d never made the crossing - lived. The distinction between her world and even the Florence I’d been inhabiting for weeks has stayed with me over the years: I apprehended it on the road to the village as our car zipped past hunched old women headed there, too, weighted with bundles of twigs for their hearths. Once in my great aunt’s two-room home, I couldn’t stop wondering at the frugality of her March fire - as a child of New England I’d never seen anything like it - for it never grew to more than a modest heap of glowing embers. One scavenged log protruded from the hearth, and now and again she nudged it further into the embers to keep the fire going.
Back then I stayed in Italy long enough so that my own language could sound strange to my ears. A quarter of a century later I can still see myself writing aerograms in a café and eating paglia e fieno in the restaurant where I was the only one who didn’t run to the window when it began to snow. Still, I was never in danger of being marked as an Italian by that journey - I was born into a world accustomed to crossings and returns, a world that expected and encouraged them.
Such ease of crossing can’t help but lighten the effects of travel, all the more so in today’s world of instant communication: Once arrived, I can easily be both home and away at the same time. And so, given the chance to visit Sicily come September, I began to search for books about the island in hopes of adding both time and meaning to my trip, as a way to begin the journey beforehand. I could have started almost anywhere, for Sicily - layered with a history of occupations by Arabs, Greeks, Spaniards, Bourbons - is a world about which I know almost nothing.
With books, as with any journey, so much depends upon your entry point. Had I begun, say, by rereading Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s “The Leopard,’’ I might have followed a trail of 19th century aristocrats. But I entered Sicily, instead, after World War II, by way of Carlo Levi’s slim book of essays, “Words are Stones.’’ I could think of no more reliable guide. “Christ Stopped At Eboli’’ - Levi’s record of his internal exile from northern Italy to a remote, timeless Lucanian village, having been sentenced there during the 1930s for his anti-fascist leanings - has long influenced the way the Italian south lives in my mind.
Likewise the Sicily he writes of is isolated and ancient, though by the 1950s at least some of the peasants he encounters also imagine another world waiting to be born, one that just might accord them a greater share of the fruits of their labors, and a more humane working day. As Levi travels through a countryside struggling to move beyond its feudal system of land holding, he encounters a Sicily rife with violence and corruption, for the strongholds of power relied on the Mafia to keep the old order.
Danilo Dolci grants additional insight into those post-war years in “Sicilian Lives.’’ Dolci, born near Trieste, worked most of his life to improve living and working conditions in western Sicily, and in this book he sets down his conversations with farmers, foragers, shepherds, policemen, union organizers, the gofers of Palermo, even aristocrats. Their voices are at turns resigned and tenacious, hard edged. One young man Dolci encounters in prison remarks: “If there’s no work you eat grass. You do anything if you’re starving. You can’t see any more through your eyes. You kill, do any damn thing.’’
I know full well that I may never encounter the smallest part of the Sicily Dolci and Levi captured. The page records, while time erodes and accretes. History takes unforeseen turns. Still, for a few months more, while the only Sicily I know is the one on the page, these post-war accounts will continue to feel as if they are happening now, even alongside more contemporary evocations, such as Mary Taylor Simeti’s “On Persephone’s Island: A Sicilian Journal.’’ Simeti, an American expatriate married to a Sicilian, both loves and contends with the fact of her crossing; the grape and olive harvests, and the steeped history have become ingrained in her over decades, yet violence and corruption remain - union organizers are still gunned down, the Mafia still threaten the peace.
The world Simeti depicts is also much changed from that of Levi and Dolci: The traditional life struggles to maintain a foothold while the modern world, with its autostradas and summer houses, rushes in. Perhaps most admirably, she captures the complex and rich natural world in which this struggle plays out; her depictions of the climate and landscape, both cultivated and wild - every bit as much as the island’s historic conflicts - remind me that, however fast the plane ride or instant the communications, Sicily is still a world apart, that the Mediterranean tides are nothing like the long tides of the Gulf of Maine, and on the outskirts of Palermo almond trees are blossoming while a quiet February snow falls across our coastal plain.Jane Brox’s fourth book, “Brilliant: The Evolution of Artificial Light,’’ is now available in paperback from Mariner Books. She can be reached at janebrox.com.