This epic narrative of Italian immigrants in America is entertaining and insightful.
Raffaela Marie Rizzo’s Thank You for the Shoes is a realistic portrait of a young man’s quest to make something of himself as an immigrant in the Industrial Revolution–era United States.
As a boy in turn-of-the-century Calabria, Italy, Michele knows poverty. His family struggles in a beautiful but rustic community, so much so that his father, Antonio, immigrates to the United States to work labor jobs and send money home. But when his father dies there on the job, Michele makes it his quest to journey to the United States himself and look for his father’s grave while picking up his legacy of success in the New World.
Right from the foreword of Thank You for the Shoes, Rizzo notes that her new book, like its protagonist, is on a quest. Rizzo writes that Thank You for the Shoes is not the mafia type of New World–struggle drama of Italian immigrants so prevalent in today’s entertainment. Thank You for the Shoes is more focused on real struggles and how Italian immigrants actually came to prominence in the United States: through blood, sweat, and loss. The result is an epic narrative with many period details and detailed hardships, told through the eyes of Michele.
The detailed hardships are where Rizzo finds her stride as a writer. Before he leaves Italy, Michele is infected with meningitis and the family has to bring in a doctor, which exposes their poor living: “[Michele’s sister Marianna] offered him coffee, then immediately realized that what she had was probably not what the doctor was accustomed to drinking. Their coffee was made from boiled dandelions.” And “Negri smoked a shriveled, short, skinny cigar that the i’mercani called ‘guinea stinkers.’” It’s in these short, well-composed lines that the author mixes comedy and tragedy, showing how much poverty and social prejudice these characters actually went through to survive.
More creativity in the characters to match the narrative details would have improved Thank You for the Shoes. While the period details and scenarios are compelling, the characters are less so. When Michele’s mother, Rosa, remarries after Antonio dies, it’s confessed that “unlike the love and burning attraction she had experienced with Antonio, this union would just help them stay alive.” Michele’s struggles are incredible, but passages like, “[He] knew with certainty that he would find what he was seeking in America,” make him seem more like an archetypal hardship-story character instead of a well-rounded individual.
Overall, Thank You for the Shoes is straightforward and written with integrity. Some of it seems overtly familiar, but it’s entertaining and insightful throughout.
Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The publisher of this book provided free copies of the book and paid a small fee to have their book reviewed by a professional reviewer. Foreword Reviews and Clarion Reviews make no guarantee that the publisher will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.