This book struck a chord with me. Elizabeth Street immediately caught my attention while reading the summary. A book about Italian immigrants and the challenges they faced when they got here? Yes, please. I'm half Italian American, so that means that half of my immigrant ancestors came from Italy – all of them on my mom's side. And they all came during the time of the so-called Great Italian Migration.
Unfortunately, none of my living Italian American relatives know much about my great-great grandparents generation, not even what parts of Italy they came from! Through my own research, I've been able to track one great-great grandfather to a town in Southern Italy. My point is this: I have no idea what my great-great grandparents went though when they got here, but this book gave me an insight, and it was a horrible realization. When my people left Italy they didn't go to New York like the ones in the book, instead they settled in the Little Italy section of Northern Boston. Still, I have a feeling their experiences weren't much different than the immigrants in Elizabeth Street.
The characters and story of Elizabeth Street are based on the author's own Italian ancestors. The book brought to light how Italian immigrants were targeted and treated poorly, discriminated against – being called dagoes and wops. It showed how their lives were dispensable to the employers of large companies – if an Italian died on the job, another one was brought in to take their place, like a revolving door. The families weren't taken care of, and there certainly was no suing for their relative's untimely death. Who would take their side? This also struck a chord because there's a story in my family that my great-great grandfather Marciano was killed on the job while working on the railroad.
Row of Tenements, 260 to 280 Elizabeth St. (Photograph by Lewis Hine)
Another interesting subject was how honest Italian immigrants with their own businesses were terrorized by the Black Hand (Italian criminals), who would try to extort money from these people. I suggest reading up on the Black Hand. They didn't play around.
The main character of Giovanna was impressive. She was based on the author's own great grandmother, who came to America from a town in Southern Italy called Scilla. She herself took on the shifty Black Hand head on, not relying on anyone else's help. It was dangerous, but she was not afraid. What a heroine!
Elizabeth Street was an engrossing read and the pages just flew by. I just absorbed every page, because I wanted to know, I needed to know what these people went through. I need to have some idea what my ancestors went through, and at this moment, this book was as close as I was gonna get.
Did I mention this book struck a chord with me? Anyway, there's an extensive bibliography located at the end of the book which I expect to take full advantage of.