Friday, May 28, 2010

Nothing New under the Sun

It's funny how sometimes what's going on in the real world and what's going on in my fictional world have something to say to each other. That just happened with the latest book I read, The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli.

King is the story of Beniamino, a nine-year-old Jewish boy living in Italy with his mother and extended family. Beniamino is illegitimate, which simply adds to the problems his mother faces as a Jew in trying to find work. The story begins when she has made a desperate decision - she gets Beniamino passage as a stowaway on a cargo ship heading to America. The catch? He's going alone (although he doesn't know it).

 On the passage, Beniamino gets a new name, Dom, from the sailors. When he gets to Ellis Island, he manages to escape being taken to an orphanage - but the alternative is living on the streets alone, speaking no English. Fortunately, Dom is a clever boy, and through a combination of initiative and people skills, he forms a partnership with a couple of other street boys to start a business selling sandwiches. The business thrives and at the end, Dom realizes that although his mother may have been cruel by sending him off on his own, she at least tried to help him by sacrificing to buy him a pair of shoes that saved him several times by giving the impression that he was a "somebody."

This book made me interested in reading more about the immigrant experience. Dom lived on the streets, sleeping in a barrel (until it was taken away by trash collectors) and eating whatever he could get. Yet he had it much better than the boys who were slaves to the padrone system, whose parents had indentured them in exchange for the price of a ticket to America. The interesting thing about the story is that it apparently is based on the experiences of Napoli's grandfathers. Dom may have been a character in a novel, but how many real "Doms" came into this country?

I was reading this book while reaction to the new immigration law in Arizona was being covered in news reports, and I realized again "there's nothing new under the sun." Right now, this country is struggling with attitudes toward illegal Mexican immigrants. But this struggle is nothing new. In Dom's story, the Italians see themselves as oppressed by their Irish bosses - the Irish even get to sit upstairs in the Catholic church while the Italians sit in the basement. That's in 1892. But 50 years earlier, it was the Irish who were the "undesirables" as they came to the United States to escape the potato famine.  And in the story, even though the Italians may be near the bottom of the social ladder, they still manage to find someone - the Chinese - to look down on as socially inferior. It seems to me that immigration has always been a hot button issue in this country. I read somewhere once that immigration to the United States happened in waves; first were the English and Scots and Germans, then the Irish, then southern Europeans, then eastern Europeans, then Russians (forgive me if I have the order wrong, please). Now it's the Mexicans. Each group came in to inital hostility and some degree of persecution. But eventually those groups assimiliated into the nation's culture (or the nation's culture expanded to include the group's identity) and they then became part of the establishment that looked with hostility on the next wave. It makes me wonder if the same thing won't be true of Mexicans in another 25-50 years.

I seriously would like to find some more stories about immigrants, and unlike the immigrants themselves, I have no prejudice about the national origin of the characters.  Anybody have suggestions?

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