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Alligator Bayou

Review

Alligator Bayou

After his father disappears and his mother dies, Calogero “Calo” Scalise is put on a boat in Italy and sent to America to live with his uncles and cousin. Tallulah, Louisiana simmers during the summer of 1899, and not only because of the heat. Relations between blacks and whites are tense, and Italian immigrants like Calo are isolated and largely unwelcome.

While trying to adjust to American ways in rural Louisiana, 14-year-old Calo receives tutoring from a fair-minded young white man from Iowa. Most days Calo helps out at the fruit and vegetable stand and grocery store owned by his uncles, who don’t speak English. In the new land, Calo longs for the sights, sounds and smells of his Sicilian home. Most of all, he misses his four-year-old brother Rocco, who is being raised by a friend of the family back in Sicily.

For eight years, Calo’s uncles have lived in the rural Louisiana town of Tallulah, after fleeing New Orleans and the anti-Italian sentiment in the big city, where 11 Italians had been murdered by an angry mob. But all is not peaceful in Tallulah. Jim Crow laws are enforced against blacks, and immigrants like Calo and his family are looked down upon and socially shunned by the white community.

One of the town’s most vocal and prejudiced residents threatens Calo’s Uncle Francesco after Francesco treats black customers with respect and as equally as whites. The hot-tempered Francesco refuses to back down or change his ways and is determined to continue treating his black customers with the same courtesy as whites. Tempers flare, rumors spread and mistrust ignites.

Calo and his 13-year-old cousin Cirone befriend some black neighbors, and they are taunted and beaten by a group of white boys. When Calo meets and is attracted to a beautiful black teenager named Patricia, he quickly learns it is dangerous for them to be seen together.

ALLIGATOR BAYOU is a gripping story that brings to light --- and life --- shameful anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiment in the late 19th century. Donna Jo Napoli’s careful research and rich details vividly portray a picture of prejudice, ignorance and violence against Italian immigrants and blacks living in America’s South. She takes pains to give fair treatment to whites by showing the courage of fair-minded whites and not painting all white southerners as racists.

I recommend this book to middle-grade and young adult readers as well as their teachers for its moving portrayal of the unfairness and oppression of blacks and immigrants living in the South during the era of the Jim Crow laws. Napoli’s crisp and graceful writing captures the essence of the time and gives voice to an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic story that needs to be heard.

Reviewed by Donna Volkenannt on March 10, 2009

Alligator Bayou
by Donna Jo Napoli

  • Publication Date: May 11, 2010
  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
  • ISBN-10: 0553494171
  • ISBN-13: 9780553494174