Now and Then in Tuscany: Italian journeys

by Angela Petch

Synopsis

Young Davide Starnucci is faced with what, to him, is a daunting homework assignment: to find out about his relatives who left Italy. With his father Francesco’s help, Davide sets out to learn about the life of his great-grandfather Giuseppe Starnucci. Giuseppe’s story begins with his childhood in the Tuscan mountains, continues through his arduous migrations on the yearly transumanza, and ends with his return to his beloved mountains. In parallel, the book introduces Davide’s modern-day family of his parents and three sisters. While their lives are not as dramatic as Giuseppe’s, they face the trials, conflicts and joys of a modern blended family.

Theme of the Book

Now and Then in Tuscany is rich in its appreciation of the deep relationship between man and nature. Mountain life, the transumanza, or the search for wolves in the modern-day forests is life entwined with the natural world. It is also the story of family – of who is included in the idea of family and of the importance of close family ties for both physical and psychological survival. It is a history of people normally ignored by historians, the peasant class. Finally, for anyone with Italian ancestors, it is a glimpse into the lives of our forebearers.

What I liked about the story

Between 1920 and 1930, over 2 million Italians left Italy as émigrés. Poverty was the principle driving force behind this Italian diaspora, though the rise of Fascism also played a large part in motivating people to leave their homes. A large proportion of the émigrés were peasants and many came from the mountains of Tuscany. Though the main character of the book, Giuseppe Starnucci stayed in Tuscany, his life must have been very similar to that of those who left.

Ms. Petch has brought this history to life. Her vivid descriptions of the hardships of mountain life in which the inhabitants must fill every need from the nature around them become even clearer when Davide and his family try to live for a week the way Giuseppe and his family lived. There are wonderful scenes of Marisa, Giuseppe’s wife, collecting plants to treat a wide variety of illnesses. Descriptions of the villagers beating drums and kettles to drive off a storm show not only the close relationship to nature but also the persistence of deeply held superstitions.

Giuseppe’s yearly participation in the transumanza, the migration from mountain pastures to sea-side grazing, is beautifully narrated. The reader becomes one with the shepherds moving vast flocks, food and equipment along sometimes dangerous paths.

One of the most touching and affecting aspects of the book is the description of present-day mountain villages. They have been abandoned and many of the houses left in ruins or turned into holiday homes with the traditional mountain culture nearly gone.

But Ms. Petch does not confine her story to merely danger and hardship. There are moments of joy, of fellowship, and of celebration as well. Many of the minor characters are full of life and humor. There is Nello, the stinky cheesemaker and, my personal favorite, Giselda, an eccentric yet wise old woman.

What I didn’t like about the story

Although Now and Then in Tuscany purports to tell the stories of both great-grandfather Giuseppe and his modern-day descendants, the modern family of Davide, Francesco, Anna, and their daughters, is much less well developed. While the reader will come to know Giuseppe’s generation well, the modern generation were not fleshed out and at times seemed more like filler than an integral part of the book. Everything that happened to Giuseppe, Marisa, and the others of their generation added to the depth of the story. Each event, happy or sad, led to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for their circumstances. This didn’t happen with the modern family. The reader will not know them any better after reading of the events in their lives.

Some facets of the story also left me wondering. Fausto, the bully, was a fascinating character, but his exit from the story was abrupt and the reader is left with many unanswered questions about his character, motives, and history.

Finally the ending leaves so many questions. Yes, life is full of unanswered questions, but usually readers expect a wrapping-up at the end of a book. This one leaves the reader feeling as though it will be necessary to buy the next book in the series and possibly the one after that.

Final say

Now and Then in Tuscany is a deft combination of novel and history. It moved me in many places and frustrated me in others. Much of the book is beautifully written, though there are parts that seem superficial. I did enjoy the book and would definitely recommend it.

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