Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 17, 2012

The Italian Girl, by Rebecca Huntley

For someone who doesn’t read much memoir, I seem to have read quite a few of them lately! Rebecca Huntley’s The Italian Girl interested me because it’s billed as the story of an Italian woman who ran the family sugar-cane farm while her husband was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ during WW2.  As you can see from comments on my recent post about The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women, I’m interested in reading more about the role of women in our history, and I liked the sound of this one because it offered an insight into our multicultural Australian life.

Unfortunately, this book takes a long time to get beyond the sad but commonplace experience of losing a beloved grandmother and feeling regret about having wasted opportunities to get to know her better.  There’s a lot about the train trip up to Innisfail, about the funeral, about the burial and so on.  There are inconclusive efforts to ‘connect with’ Nonna through belated efforts to learn Italian properly, to resurrect a recipe for one of her cakes, and an inconclusive trip to Elba which doesn’t satisfy the author’s quest to find out more about her grandmother.  If you like memoir and the ‘journey of self-discovery’, you’ll probably enjoy it, but I was interested in the historical aspects of the grandmother’s life, not the grand-daughter’s sudden interest in her own identity and her relationship with her mother.  For more than the first third of the book we learn more about the personality, tastes and personal life of the narrator than we do about the person I expected to be the subject of the memoir.

From Part 3 onwards, the story becomes more interesting.  The history of WW2 internments in Australia isn’t widely known much beyond the failed Japanese POW escape attempt in The Cowra Breakout and the shameful story of the Dunera Boys – Jewish refugees wrongly sent here from Britain as enemy aliens along with a few Italian fascists and some Nazis.  In fact, there was widespread internment of local Italians during WW2 and it occurred for much the same reasons as the internment of Japanese in America, memorably depicted in David Guterson’s novel Snow Falling on Cedars.  And as usual, whatever the general public does know about these events, is usually about the impact on the men.  That’s understandable, because the deprivation of liberty and imprisonment in camps is a serious matter and a cause for some national soul-searching in the aftermath of war, but there’s also a story to be told about the impact on the women left at liberty.  That was the story I was really interested in.

The author interviewed numerous members of her extended family, and hunted down files from the National Archives to discover that there were indeed members of her family who – despite being naturalised Australians for many years – had been interned.  The documents show that there was possibly some justification for the internment of her grandmother’s husband Oreste, since he had fascist connections in his past and imprudently renounced his citizenship, though the latter may just have been frustration with his continued incarceration.  As was the case with most of the internees, the case against her great-grandfather Luigi seems to have been based more on generalised suspicion rather than any genuine evidence about where his loyalties lay.

But frustratingly, details about her grandmother who as a young woman had to take over all the running of the family sugar cane farms, remained elusive.  There are snippets about how the responsibility fell to her because she was the only one literate and able to speak English; about how, entrusted with the cheque book, she bought smart hats and frocks to look the part of a manager; about the shortage of labour with all the men away at war; and about the hostility she and the other women experienced in the local community.  But as to how she felt or how she adapted when she had to surrender this independence and go back to cooking and embroidery when it was all over, the oral and documentary record is silent.  In this respect the book reminded me a bit of Drusilla Modjeska’s fictionalised biography of her mother, Poppy, because many questions remain unanswered and in the end we don’t really know whose story this is.

The SMH profiled Rebecca Huntley here.  John Paul Newbury reviewed the book at Bonzer.

PS I couldn’t find an acknowledgement for the cover design, but I thought the designer did a great job.  The faded photo of the author’s mother and grandmother superimposed above an image of the Queensland cane fields is very appropriate, and it’s good to see a publisher still bothering with cover art that actually relates to the book content instead of those awful often completely irrelevant stock images that are so common these days.  Well done, UQP!

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: The Italian Girl
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2012
ISBN: 9780702239182
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.

Availability:
Fishpond: The Italian Girl or direct from UQP


Responses

  1. What a fascinating, unknown story. Just the kind that fascinates me. Sorry the author had to tell us more about herself and had little access to anything personal about what her grandmother actually thought about being in charge or giving up the responsibility. Maybe this is a case where well researched historical fiction could supplement the facts. “Poppy” is on my list to find, but so far no luck.

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    • Perhaps there’s another author out there who’ll be inspired to write the Australian version of Snow Falling on Cedars!

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  2. Thanks Lisa for another great review. I had not come across any references to this book, but am very interested in the whole Italian migration story, being half Italian.

    The whole issue of Italian (plus German & Japanese) internment is an interesting one given the theatres of war & how “we” treated those we interned because of their descent, regardless of whether the individuals were born with the UK or parts of the Commonwealth, or even if they had been Naturalised.The same applies to the USA of course.

    The repercussions for researchers is frustrating – many changed their German & Italian sounding names to ones that were more “acceptable” Smit became Smith for example, Guiseppe became Joseph and so forth.

    The whole issue of immigration, internment is fascinating & I have added this book to the very top of my Amazon list.

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    • It fascinates me too, and I hope some historian is beavering away recording the oral histories of these people while there’s still time. Another little known aspect of postwar Italian migration is the story of the Partisans who came here: one of my neighbours was a Partisan as a boy but he died just this year. His would have been an interesting story too.

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  3. This is of interest to me too. Despite having no hint of Italian in my blood, I feel an affinity with those who do [hmmm…I wonder if its something to do with the love of food ;)]. I am currently involved in an Italian historical cookbook project in Stanthorpe. Our town is visited by tourists for its wineries, olive groves, cheeses and the whole ‘slow food’ approach which has evolved mainly due to the enormous influence of Italian immigrants.
    I agree with mdbrady’s comments above: historical fiction would probably have been a good fit here. When not enough fact is available, fiction fills the void.
    Agreed Lisa, UQP’s cover looks perfect.

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    • An Italian historical cookbook project – now that sounds very interesting. I have quite a few Italian cookbooks including that old Women’s Weekly Italian Cooking Class one from the 1980s but I know my favourites off-by-heart now and don’t need the books. (My vegetarian lasagne with eggplant, capsisum and mushrooms is legendary). Anyway I hope your project involves lots of sampling various recipes LOL :)
      BTW The Spouse has successfully preserved a first batch of olives from our tree, and they are so much nicer than the store-bought ones!

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      • I am an absolute fanatic for doing my own olives. We had an organic farm for a few years and our olives were highly sought after. I now have one tree and successfully bottled 34 (yes just 34!) olives this year. The dear little tree is only 2 years old so it’s doing well.

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        • That is good, we’ve only just got a crop on ours and I think the tree is 6-7 years old.

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    • Historical Italian cookbook project looks fascinating. More of these projects need to exist to preserve the journey the immigrants & their recipes did.

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      • It’s amazing how much culture you can learn from a cookbook!

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  4. A great review, Lisa. I get to know more on Australian lit and history from reading your blog. Thanks.

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    • Thanks, Celestine, but it’s really the authors who deserve the credit!

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  5. As an Italian-Australian I was keen to read this book yet came away feeling disappointed and frustrated. Reading about the important topic of internment was great but felt a bit stilted as The Italian Girl switched between Huntley’s memoir style and the textbook-like research her research assistant had put together. What was really jarring was the author several times needing to purport the superiority of northern Italians over southern Italians. It seemed a little outdated and prejudiced and strange considering her admitting for most of her life she had little to do with her Italian heritage. (I have heritage from both north and south and would never dream of saying one was better.)

    Bill Bunbury’s, “Rabbits and Spaghetti” (Freemantle Press 1995) is a much better book on Italian internment in Australia. And for an Italian-Australian memoir about a descendent of Italian migrants I much preferred “Mezza Italiana” by Zoe Boccabella (HarperCollins 2011) about the author growing up half Australian half Italian. She obviously spent a lot of time talking to her grandparents who arrived in Australia in the 1930s as in this book questions don’t go unanswered as they did in The Italian Girl. “Mezza Italiana” also touches on her grandfather being interned (Boccabella was brave enough admit he was a fascist). Interestingly she also writes about having an Italian grandfather interned in the war and an Australian grandfather who fought for Australia and yet as older men they’d sit down and chat together. I’d highly recommend “Mezza Italiana” as I could really relate to it much more than The Italian Girl. Your review was spot on.

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    • Hello Lucia, and thank you for so generously sharing your recommendations about other books on this theme:)
      Yes, you are right, I was a bit puzzled about the north/south Italian comparison and was never really sure if the author was just reporting on the attitudes of her family or shared those attitudes herself. I’ll see if I can hunt out a copy of the books you recommend because I have had close contact with Italian immigrants since my school days and am very interested in their history.

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  6. Thank you, Lisa. My apologies, I hadn’t realised my comment had gotten so long!! I guess it is a subject I feel passionate about. It might be a little hard to find “Rabbits and Spaghetti” now but “Mezza Italiana” should be still around. Thank you for your response.

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    • I’m having trouble finding a copy of Mezza Italiana here in the USA. It’s $80 a copy in bookstores and only a handful of libraries in the whole country own it.
      I looked it up on Worldcat to see about getting it through Interlibrary Loan and found well over a hundred others listed as by Immiganrts–Australia–Biography. Maybe those of you in Australia can find some of those.

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      • Marilyn, Amazon has a Kindle edition for $12AUD, can you access that?

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        • Thanks, Lisa. I literally just started doing audiobooks this weekend and am slowly figuring out what I need to do to find them. I have relied on Library Thing to tell me were I can get books. Now I know to check separately for audios. Needed to learn that. I am still amazed at how many books there are by Italian Australians.

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          • It can be a real pain trying to track down books you’re interested in, if they’re a bit unusual. That’s why I (try to remember to) add availability details on my blog posts, one for Aussie readers and one for overseas readers…

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  7. To be honest I feel that Rebeca wanted to write this book not to talk about her Nonna, most of what is said is not true as I know the family very well. It is just sad that she could not come up with truths and facts only hearsay. She has offended many of her family members. I would have to say it is such a shame

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    • Hello Bernie, and welcome to chatting about books here at ANZ LitLovers.
      What you say is sometimes the way with biographies and memoirs. So often our memories are not the same as those of others, and not everyone has the same perception of the facts. Readers who are not connected with the subject in any way can only deal with the material as it is presented and make sense of it as best they can.

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  8. Hello, I too am very disappointed by The Italian Girl. I do not have any Italian background but I can understand Bernie’s comment that some family members may be offended by Rebecca Huntley’s book. I felt at times prickled by some of her viewpoints myself.
    I agree with Lucia Rossi’s comments – Mezza Italiana by Zoe Boccabella is a wonderful book! I adored it. Boccabella seemed to approach her memoir with a little more humility, sensitivity and thought than Huntley. I’d highly recommend it. Having been out for more than a year Mezza Italiana is getting hard to find but I discovered bookshops will order it in for you if you ask.

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    • That’s interesting that you feel the same way too, Imogen. I’m in Russia at the moment, but I think I will try to check out the memoir you suggest when I get back. Thanks for taking the time to recommend it:)
      Lisa

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      • I am currently reading and enjoying Mezza Italiana. I should post a review of it later this week.

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  9. I read this book late last year and felt a bit frustrated too. I’m an Italian-Australian (born in Italy, raised in Australia) and am always looking for good memoir related to Italian immigration, but found the writing style a bit puzzling. I started a blog last year (food memoir/folklore I guess you’d call it) and – ahem – hungry for this type of literature. Sounds like I should also try to find Mezza Italiana. Thanks for the tip, all.

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    • Hello, and welcome:)
      We are starting to see a greater range of voices in publishing these days, so I feel confident that what you are looking for will be around somewhere. I don’t review much memoir, but I’m sure if you fossick around on Goodreads in the Aussie group, something will turn up.
      Good luck!

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      • Thanks Lisa. I stumbled onto your site by accident, and am familiar with Goodreads. Have also just bought Mezza Italiana from Booktopia. cheers

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  10. Nice account of the life of an Italian family in tropical Australia….I just don’t understand why the author refers Italians as “non whites”

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    • Hello Lilly, and welcome! I’m sorry, it’s too long ago since I read this book so I don’t remember the context of that reference. On the face of it, though, it does seem odd, because I’ve never heard anyone describe Italians in that way.

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      • I just finished reading The Pea Pickers. In it the narrator talks about Italians as being a different race and how that was why she won’t want to marry one. She seems to lump them with Indians, Chinese, and Indigenous Australians, although she enjoys their company more. For her white Australians were clearly superior. The book was written in the 1920s, and perhaps that attitude has gradually died out.

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        • I read that one a while ago now, and yes, those insular attitudes do seem dated. But perhaps we need to put it in the context that agricultural workers were in fierce competition for jobs, that conditions were very poor and there was little protection for workers whose wages were being undercut by immigrant workers.
          I bet you admire her feisty attitudes to other matters though!

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      • Yes, I did admire much about Pea Pickers, and I understand the economic motivations for racism. They were also present here in the US. yes, what is considered racist constantly changes. What surprised me was that here the comments were specifically about “intermarriage” and the dangers of “race mixing.” I am not sure that I have ever encountered that language for any group other than Blacks. It wasn’t commonly used here for native Americans or in attacks on Southern European “races.”

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  11. […] Huntley’s memoir The Italian Girl offers another perspective, that of her grandmother who ran the family farm alone while her husband […]

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