Imagine a romance that blooms without the aid of texting/voice mail/Face Time or WhatsApp, but simply through letter-writing, resulting in a marriage lasting a lifetime.
In Letters from Italy: A Transatlantic Love Story (BlackRoseWriting.com) this simple pleasure recurs throughout the book, leading to one of the most compelling thoughts: to life before technology. In an age when even emails have become almost as extinct as the fountain pen, and texting has replaced most forms of communication, the book’s opening sentence, “I truly hope that you will permit me to write to you,” captures our curiosity in the tech-driven year of 2022.
When I think of times past and memories of a pre-tech life, the one recurrent longing is for the lost art of letter writing. Sadly, the generation gap has closed, and I am astounded at the many people in my age bracket who have forgotten how to send a note, or sometimes, in fact, even a simple text.
When I was asked to review a book about this ‘lost art’, I was immediately interested and eager to read a story of romance that began before WWII and crossed two continents. What had become a memory, for most of us, is now nostalgia for letter-writing, in its many artful forms.
I reached out to the author Mario Dell’Olio, to request the hard copy – as the original form of page-turning is still my preference – and asked him why he chose to highlight this love story. He was happy to provide a lengthy answer.
“Letters from Italy is a nonfictional narrative, the biography of a love story about my Italian immigrant parents. My mother and father were always storytellers. Shortly after my father’s death, my mother found letters she had written to him so many decades before. Sitting at the kitchen table, she read them to me, beginning a passage back through time, accessing memories long forgotten. Having lived and studied in Rome and Urbino, my love for the Italian language and culture has always colored my life. Hearing my parents’ written words prompted me to learn more about our shared Italian history. I had no choice but to write their story: Letters from Italy.”
The story opens with a letter written in 1950 from Orazio to Tina (the central characters, and the parents of author Mario Dell’Olio) and prefaced by a request for permission, by Tina’s cousin, to begin this communication. The initial intention was to have Tina simply respond by acknowledging Orazio’s interest. She was first spotted years before on the streets of Bisceglie, a city on the Adriatic Sea in the province of Barletta-Andria-Trani, in the Apulia region, where Orazio lived as a young boy and where Tina would often stand at her window, holding a bowl of pasta, waiting for her brother to return from work. Years later, after Orazio had left Bisceglie for America, he received a photo sent to him by his brother, of a group of family friends, and there she was. The memory of her face had remained emblazoned in his mind while stealing his heart. He was eager to make contact.
The simplicity of this encounter is the premise of this well-crafted biography. Mario Dell’Olio reaches back in time to flesh out a story of love and endurance, beginning in the late 1930’s and through WWII, by including the horrific accounts of the Nazi invasion in Italy under Mussolini’s harsh reign and the struggles that ensued. The central theme of these letters, written between two virtual strangers, begins as a formal communication between two young people seeking a connection and remains consistent in this tenacious love story for all ages.
The beauty of the written word allowed Orazio and Tina to express themselves in ways that dove deeper into their hearts. “A reserved man who did not show emotions openly, when he put pen to paper, Orazio’s genuine feelings come to life as he revealed his heart”, writes Dell’Olio. And her words, equally honest, illustrated this relationship in all its complexity, revealing doubt, insecurity and conflict. The history of life in Italy during this time–the indignities, the lack of proper health care, the desperate struggle for work–while overcoming obstacles and boundaries, enhances the depth of these letters.
Most poignant is the detailed description of the difficulties in finding work in America in the 1930’s. Much could be attributed to the anti-immigration policy then, an eerily familiar topic today and sadly, one that has not changed significantly over a span of more than 70 years.
The treacherous journey from Italy to America on steamships took days, sometimes weeks, and reeking from the stench of sickness, only to arrive on unfamiliar and unfriendly shores. Reading this book, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the scores of recent migrants crossing borders in futile attempts to flee from their oppressive homes.
And I may add, a very sad commentary on our state and an even sadder commentary on the lack of social progress that we have made. It is one of the many ways that this book resonates so strongly even today.
It is clear early on, that Dell’Olio’s biography has been written as a love letter to his family as much as it is the love story of his parents, Orazio and Tina. Letters from Italy fulfills the reader’s expectations: surprise, hardship, disappointment, but mostly of enduring love, all unfold in the course of the narrative. The book is available in hardcover, paperback and digital forms. I highly recommended it as enjoyment and as an incentive for the exploration of family histories that perhaps over the years may have simply been left to the imagination.