Rose, the protagonist in summer Island resident Elisa M. Speranza’s novel, faces a challenge — well, actually a number of them, which are at the heart of “The Italian Prisoner.”
She lives with her Sicilian immigrant parents in New Orleans in 1943. From the first page we are launched into her rocky journey as she fights for liberation from the expectations of her traditional mother and father. She’s not interested in their desire for her to continue working in their grocery store until she finds a husband and has a family of her own. So Rose sneaks off to interview for a bookkeeping job at Higgins Industries, the real-life maker of the famed Higgins Boats — the landing craft you see in every film clip of the invasion of Normandy.
Getting the job, she has to face her parents’ disapproval, especially her mother, who rules through guilt and shame. But Rose is desperate to do her part for the war effort. Her brother is fighting in the Pacific and her sister is an army nurse in Europe. Speranza writes: “Now Rose had her own decision to announce, and her mother’s spiteful words rang in her head. But so did her sister’s bravery. Rose wondered about her own motivations; did she think she was too good to work in the store? No, she told herself. The job at Higgins was just for the duration of the war. To do her part. Still, she had to be truthful — there would be other benefits. She’d be using her brain at the factory, meeting new people, finally free from the monotony of selling groceries … Was it wrong to want to reach for something more for herself?”
Rose excels in the job, rejoicing in the freedom it brings her, as well as the money to secretly get a place of her own. But Speranza throws a wrench in with the introduction of a love interest. The local priest, with whom the family is quite close, arranges for some young women in the neighborhood to visit the Italian prisoners of war at a nearby military base. One thing leads to another, and Rose falls for charming Sal, whom her mother and father soon embrace.
Although the book is fiction, Speranza was inspired by true events: “On my research treasure hunt, I learned that 51,000 Italian POWs were captured and brought to the United States during the war — most of them from North Africa in 1943. Mussolini left his men starving in the desert with no supplies, no ammunition. They surrendered willingly, and were mostly grateful to be taken to America, where they were held at vacant Army bases around the United States and treated well, according to the Geneva Convention.”
It turns out that after Italy surrendered in September of 1943, the men were put to work because the country badly needed labor. The Italians, who were not a threat to anyone, were allowed out to socialize, chaperoned by U.S. guards. In the story, as Rose and Sal become increasingly serious, she becomes torn between her heart and a strong desire to keep working after the war, which Sal makes clear he wouldn’t want should they marry.
Speranza says about developing Rose, “The more I learned about the era, and the critical role women played in the war industry, the stronger Rose’s character grew. I kept wondering whether all those women willingly went back to the kitchen once the men came home, or whether they liked the taste of independence they got at work. It was such an important inflection point for women, and I wanted to reflect those challenges and opportunities in my character’s quest.”
Speranza populates “The Italian Prisoner” with other characters who reflect different underlying currents in society at the time, including prejudice against Blacks as well as Italian Americans. We also have her independent, liberated Aunt Inez, Rose’s champion; and her best friend Marie, who, unlike Rose, is not torn about leaving her job at the plant once the war ends, instead yearning for a married home life with her beau, Sal’s best friend.
Speranza says about the book’s origin, “Shortly after I moved to New Orleans in 2002, I heard a friend’s story about his parents: an Italian prisoner of war and a French Quarter Sicilian woman who met during World War II in New Orleans. I was floored — I’m half Italian myself, and I had no idea there were Axis POWs held in the U.S.
“I tracked down 10 New Orleans–area families who descended from those POWs and their Sicilian-American sweethearts. One of the POWs was still alive, as was one of the brides, and I was lucky enough to interview them both. It’s an incredible story. (There are links on my website to more information on all these stories for people who really want to take a deep dive.)”
“The Italian Prisoner” transports us to a different time and place, but Speranza wrote much of her book here on the Vineyard. She says, “Kayaking in Lagoon Pond turned out to be a great pandemic stress reliever, and a welcome place for contemplation and working out knots in my plotline! There’s something in the air, the light, the magic of the Vineyard that nurtures creativity.”
“The Italian Prisoner,” by Elisa M. Speranza. $15.99, Kindle $9.99. Publication April 11, available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books, and online. Visit Speranza’s website at elisamariesperanza.com.