Donna Jo Napoli
Delacorte young readers (12+)
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". . .a marvelous and appalling moment perfectly preserved…"
Alligator Bayou: Turn of the century Louisiana from a Sicilian boy’s point of view.
Since his mother died and his father came to America and disappeared, Calogero has no family but his little brother Rocco. Neighbors in Cefalù take Rocco in, but not Calo. He is sent to Louisiana to live with his uncles and cousin Cirone who is a year younger.
Life is very different in Tallulah. His uncles have a fruit and vegetable store and a stand where they all work. They have more than they did in Sicily, and they work hard. There’s enough to eat, and the uncles can afford to pay artist Frank Raymond to teach Calo English, history, painting and all about life every Sunday.
One thing Calo has to learn is to treat white people better than the negroes. White people come first. Neither Calo nor his family is white. They fraternize with blacks. They serve whoever comes to their stand or into the store first and refuse to recognize a difference. That causes problems with the locals. Calo doesn’t care and he doesn’t understand why there is a difference, especially when he meets Patricia, a smart and sassy black girl his age. She is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.
Calo and his family are invited to a gathering at Patricia’s school and they accept. It’s a chance for them to make new friends and the beginning of trouble for them all.
Louisiana just before the twentieth century was a closed society where Italians were barely tolerated. In Alligator Bayou Donna Jo Napoli filters the prejudices and the history of the region through the eyes of recently emigrated Calogero. What begins as an ordinary story of two teenagers getting to know each other separated not by choice but by prejudice and still finding a way to be together in spite of the danger.
Calogero provides an ingenuous innocent and naïve point of view. From Calo’s fiery Uncle Francesco to earthy Patricia’s youthful wisdom, Alligator Bayou is populated with characters as individual as thumbprints and just as memorable. Napoli stirs the pot gently, adding prejudice, history and local color with a deft hand. I was stunned at the climax.
Napoli’s amazing tale is like hunting alligators in the bayou, drifting through a secret world where death and violence lie just beneath the surface. Alligator Bayou is a marvelous and appalling moment perfectly preserved like an insect in amber, an unimaginable past that retains the power to touch the heart and mind.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell