Author takes risks with nonfiction

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March 31, 2013

Rosina: The Midwife
By Jessica Kluthe
Brindle and Glass, 216 pages, $19.95
E-book, $14.95

Reviewed by Lynne Bowen

Rosina, the midwife is a true account of the life of an Italian woman from the region of Calabria. Rosinaʼs young and modern great, great granddaughter, Jessica Kluthe, is the author.
 Kluthe, who has an MFA in Writing from the University of Victoria, lives in Edmonton. This is her first book.

In writing the book, Kluthe pushes against the definition of nonfiction. In parts of the story where she could not know what Rosina was thinking or doing, Kluthe enhances the narrative with invention. But she does it by signaling to the reader that what follows is what she has imagined.

When Rosina the midwife walks through the Calabrian night to deliver a baby, we are with her because Kluthe has used her knowledge of the woman and the terrain to imagine what it must have been like:

She knows the ground well, even in the dark. She slows down around the spots where rotting roots have left holes and takes wider strides over a nettle patch; her legs are bare beneath her gown.

Kluthe enhances the narrative with the knowledge that years of doing research and listening to family stories has given her about her ancestor whose lonely but useful life is now mostly unknowable.

There is no song to help me feel her, no voice to remind me of hers. There is no scent, no texture. No time of day.

In language that is spare and breathtakingly beautiful, Kluthe has written a book which carves new paths for literary nonfiction to follow.

I confess that I brought a bias to the reading of the book: I had taught creative nonfiction writing for several years and believed that the audience for nonfiction wants to know that all the events in the book really happened. But Klutheʼs book meets with my approval, which says more about the chances she takes and the evolution of nonfiction writing, than about the validity of my bias.

I also came to this book having spent eleven years researching and writing about Italy and the people who were forced to leave it. From the perspective of a non-Italian at least, I knew the topic of Italian emigration well. Now, having read Rosina, the midwife, I know more about the few who were left behind and I understand more about the emigrants and their descendants.

Kluthe is artful in the way she handles time and sequence as she navigates between her own and her ancestorʼs stories. She bravely reveals her own tragedies in moving detail and is equally brave in her insistence that her relatives help her in her efforts to fill in the blanks in the familyʼs past. The fact that she travelled to Calabria with her grandfather and her uncle — two additional generations of her family, one able to speak Italian, the other Calabrese — makes a true but inadvertent statement about the changes emigration causes in families.

The reader is in Calabria with Rosina at a time when wheat still grows in the fields and vines still bear fruit, but wretched poverty is driving the people away. And the reader is in Calabria with Kluthe a century later when the soil will not hold water and Rosinaʼs people have died or have left Italy for another part of the world.

Lynne Bowen is a Nanaimo writer; her latest book is Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Columbia.

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