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Alligator Bayou    by Donna Jo Napoli order for
Alligator Bayou
by Donna Jo Napoli
Order:  USA  Can
Wendy Lamb Books, 2009 (2009)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Donna Jo Napoli's Alligator Bayou takes place in 1899 Louisiana, the segregated South of Negroes and whites, rich and poor, when anti-immigration sentiments were strong. Napoli's latest YA historical reveals the Sicilian immigrant experience and lynching atrocities. She shows Italians being judged for befriending Negroes, the offensive classification of dagoes and Mafia along with fault-finding for broken English accents.

It is a time in history when Jim Crow laws were in place including: 'you can't serve food to whites and Negroes in the same room at the same time'. White folks in the town want to be served first in Uncle Francesco's store, but he doesn't see it that way, and there are conflicts. Negroes are not allowed in public school; schooling is in their church building. And rich white people won't touch Sicilians and Negroes.

Calogero 'Calo' Scalise arrives in Tallulah, Louisiana to live with his uncles and cousins. The family's vegetable farm reaps a blooming livelihood, with an outdoor produce stand, plus a store in the middle of the town. Fourteen-year old Calo's mamma died in Cefalu, Italy. Papa left the family years past and never returned, and younger brother Rocco was taken in by a neighbor. Calo had been taught some English by mamma, and in Tallulah he has Frank Raymond as a tutor.

The flat, swampy Louisiana bayou takes an adjustment for Calo, who misses the beautiful, hilly shores of Sicily, with its sea breezes, cathedrals, and caves to explore. Father May travels to Catholic congregations, reciting gospels in French, and the rest of the service in a mix of Latin and English. Calo notices that some of the townsfolk don't talk as fancy as others: his tutor explains, 'After the Civil war the federal government said everyone was allowed in the public schools ... whites refused to send their children to school with the children of their former slaves. For about ten years white children in Louisiana got no education, until they built separate ramshackle schools for the Negroes'.

Calo is drawn to sharp-witted, sweet-natured Patricia, as he sees her leave the church school, and he's listened to her divine piano playing. He and cousin Cirone are invited on a 'gator hunt that begins late night and extends to morning hours. The episode is humorous when the skiff turns over and Charles is wrapped around a six-foot 'gator, while Cirone's foot is grabbed by the beak of a turtle, and their only lantern is swallowed by the water. Even more captivating is the scenario when the boys find Uncle Francesco waiting for them with an invitation extended for Calo's family to attend a party in honor of Patricia's graduation. Word gets around town - the Sicilians are mixing with the Negroes.

Calo is introduced to Frank's friend Joseph, the last member of the Tunica Indian tribe, who lives secluded in the swamp. The young Sicilian is taken by the meandering River: 'For a long time the Mississippi was the dividing line in America ... Everything civilized happened to the east of it, and no one got too flustered about what happened to the west of it. That's why the government decided to make the Indians move west across the river ... A war ensued', Frank instructs Calo. A lesson in the meaning of the word lynch is followed by tragedy witnessed by a very frightened and traumatized Calo.

Donna Jo Napoli is the award-winning author of young adult publications including The King of Mulberry Street, Bound, and Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale. For younger readers Napoli created sixteen books in the Angelwing series. The author is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore PA College.

In an Afterword Napoli expresses, 'Several years ago I came across an old and brief newspaper article about five Sicilian grocers in Tallulah ... I had to write this story. I built characters for this book around people who testified or were talked about in the testaments taken after the Tallulah lynching ... This is a story that hurts ... Pain can help us gain the empathy that compels us to act decently. We can't afford to be ignorant about bigotry. Not in our history. Not in our present day.'

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