The real story in LA STORIA has little to do with the book’s grossly inflated subtitle, since the first four centuries are treated in just thirty pages. The real story concentrates on the authors’ immensely detailed and often wrenching account of the mass immigration of some 4.5 million Italians (mainly from the south and Sicily) and the taking up of new lives in often squalid tenements and at the lowest wages (lower even than the abysmally low wages paid black Americans during the same period). That the tide of Italian immigration did not begin until Italian independence and unification had been achieved in 1871 is a historical irony that the authors explain at length. The success of Mazzini’s and Garibaldi’s Risorgimento only seemed to offer a different kind of oppression for the largely peasant population of the south. Their flight was an economic necessity brought about by northern rule, agricultural disasters, and a variety of other, often international factors.
The immigrants’ struggles at home, aboard ship, and upon arrival and the later key role they played in the labor struggles of the early twentieth century make for fascinating though often depressing reading. LA STORIA’s last one hundred pages are devoted to more recent successes by Italian Americans in the arts, politics, sports, business, and entertainment, and read, like the first thirty, like a roll call of the largely already known. There are a number of other weaknesses to this otherwise fine study: some purple passages, factual inconsistencies, failures to make statistics meaningful by contextualizing them, and, most troubling, very little documentation: facts are plentiful but sources are scarce. Still, the authors’ account of the crucial formative years of the Italian American experience is compelling reading indeed.