Tuesday, January 24, 2012

My Father's Village by Claire Nivola: a wonderful story, a wonderful model.

My Father's Village by Claire A. Nivola (Frances Foster Books, 2011) tells the story of the author's visits to the Sardinian village where her father was born. We readers go with her as she and her family "traveled far across the ocean to Italy..." to the "overnight boat [that] took us from the mainland to the island's port, arriving at dawn. From there we rode inland, past the scrub oaks and red trunks of the harvested cork trees, past chalky talc cliffs and expanses blackened by brush fires.
How long it took to get there!"

Once there the author and cousins "flew and settled wherever something was happening,... and something was always happening--close enough to touch." We adventure with the cousins, eat the feasts, even attend the wake of a dead man, and the occasional wedding and its three day feast. Eventually the narrator returns home to New York City. And Claire Nivola ends the story with a question and an invitation to readers. "Everywhere there were so many people! It seemed strange that not one of them knew Orani. But then, what different world, I wondered, what Orani of their own might they have known before they traveled here?"

There are many reasons to love this book. First, it takes us to a new place. Most of us have not been to Sardinia but Nivola's detailed descriptions and wonderful illustrations take us there, make us aware of another culture, where people share food and festivals, joy and sorrow; where kids play and run, eat chocolate and find birds that have fallen out of their nests. We see up close the sameness that exists in a faraway culture. And we perhaps are reminded--in a time when so many are so quick to divide our lives in to "us" and "them"--that we may all be "us."

Another important reason to love this book is for the invitation to write about an "Orani" of our own. We could each write a story about the place our father was born--and if we have students, they could, too. Did we live there? Did we ever get to visit? What did we love about those visits? What was scary?

I grew up in the house where my father was born so there was no travel involved. But there were favorite times--playing with my brothers and sisters in the little nook formed by three (or was it four) cedar trees in our front yard, tipping over the lawn chairs and making them into "houses" for fox and geese; homemade lemon/orange ice cream, cold on the tongue but so sweet and creamy, thanks to those Holstein cows; the little surprises in the Christmas stocking--and the night my brother and I were just about sure we saw a shadow of Santa Claus in the front hall, as he was headed downstairs.

Of course there are some who do not know of their fathers' birthplace. But every child has a favorite place. It is the nature of us and of childhood that some places are special to us--a single tree, a grandparent's kitchen, a rock by a river, a candy shop on a busy street, even a favorite car. Whoever we are, there are stories in that place--secrets, surprises, what we used to be just about sure of, what wants to be told.

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