British Columbia’s Italian Story

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January 2, 2013

Whoever Gives Us Bread:
The Story of Italians in British Columbia
By Lynne Bowen, D and M Publishers
368 pages, $32.95

Reviewed by Jessica Kluthe

Lynne Bowen’s Whoever Gives Us Bread tells us the full story. Through Bowen’s expert, meticulous research and constant resistance to telling us what can be shown through story, we both learn about the rich history and the lasting contributions of Italian immigrants—a story of a province and a story of Italian-Canadians—and we also see it all unfold.

Bowen, who lives on Vancouver Island, details the complex history of what was happening, simultaneously, in 1860 and the hundred years that followed, on either side of the ocean. This structure gives readers a clear impression of the motivations for such mass emigration and why “26 millions Italians emigrated from a land they had no wish to leave.” We encounter both the social and political situation on the Italian peninsula, and that of the booming United States and Canada. Against this historical backdrop, Bowen reveals how separation shaped the story of individual families.

Almost immediately in Bowen’s narrative, we encounter Maria Valle and read the letters she had dictated to her emigrant husband Felice; a friend later found these papers in Felice’s pocket after he dropped dead among his mules. Through careful research and creatively bringing all the pieces together, Bowen has given us stories that would otherwise be lost; thus she makes evident the weight of immigrants’ contributions to the development of British Columbia. Bowen’s dedication to uncovering the facts is unwavering. The ongoing contract with the reader to make clear what has been lost or what we cannot know is clear and is just one of the aspects that demonstrates her expertise as a historian. For instance, in the story of the Valle family, she explains that what’s “missing from official documents is any mention of where Valle is buried,” and that there was not a photo of his son among those papers found in his pocket. Bowen’s clarification of the absent, the lacunae, reveals the tremendous losses—a dark shadow trailing these migrations: A Felice Valle who, after leaving from the Stazione Marittime in Genoa, never again saw his son.

I was invested in this history as someone whose relatives were among those early Italian-Canadian migrant workers, but I finished this book with the certainty that Bowen’s book, which has won the 2012 F.G. Bressai Prize for Creative NonFiction, is an essential read for all Canadians. Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia is an important, substantive, chapter of the Canadian story.

Jessica Kluthe’s first book about a Calabrian midwife titled Rosina, The Midwife (Brindle & Glass Publishers) will be available in March. Readers can preorder a signed copy through her website: www.jessicakluthe.com.

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