Louisa Ermelino

"The Sisters Mallone"

(Reviewed by Peggy Lindsey AUG 26, 2002)

In the past ten years or so, the "trials and tribulations of family" genre has gained some authenticity that earlier, idealized accounts of such life lacked. Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents offer glimpses of the camaraderie and agony of family life never addressed in the likes of "The Sound of Music" or "The Brady Bunch." But still these books are more about individuals moving beyond their roots than about the roots themselves.

Louisa Ermelino's The Sisters Mallone breaks the mold. It is first and foremost, as the Read excerptsubtitle claims, "una storia di famiglia." The family is the Mallones, three Italian-American sisters growing up in Hell's Kitchen among the Irish in the 1920s and 30s. Orphaned by the 1918 influenza epidemic, the sisters are raised by a grandmother (Anona) who rants in an obscure Italian dialect, barters with saints (one closet shelf is full of icons of saints who didn't keep their part of a bargain), and makes sure her girls know they can always come home no matter what.

The sisters, Mary, Helen, and Gracie, are understandably close. After all, they're the only non-Irish in an Irish community---a fact that also makes them outsiders in the Italian part of town. And while Ermelino effectively creates three unique siblings, this is not a book about individuals. It's the story of how a family creates and maintains itself. After all, community is one thing, but there's nothing like having a couple of sisters to help put the fun in dysfunctional!

The novel begins in the 1950s at the funeral of Gracie's husband, Frankie. We learn that Frankie died a tragic death, but the exact circumstances are a mystery until the end of the novel. The Mallones' behavior on the day of the funeral quickly distinguishes them from their fellow Italians. Tradition decrees a procession on foot from Frankie's home to the funeral parlor: "It was how it was done in this neighborhood. It was the tradition." But Anona refuses, claiming the ritual is a shoddy American imitation of the processions she saw in Italy as a child. "This American thing, she said, was a poor second, a stroll a few blocks north to sit in what looks like someone's front parlor."

As the novel flashes between the early 1950s and the girls' childhoods 20 years earlier, Ermelino deftly develops the Mallones as a group of strong women making their way by knowing when to adapt and when to stand tough. The family changed its name, for example, to sound more Irish to fit into Hell's Kitchen and its members have adopted some non-Italian habits over the years, ignoring the dictates of community tradition. Anona adopts the Irish practice of drinking in a bar-unheard of for Italian women. Mary marries a Scandinavian gangster twice her age. Helen marries an Irishman who dies, drunk, under a beer truck and leaves her to lead a comfortably bi-sexual life (and fondness for Schlitz, the brand that crushed her husband) on the settlement. Gracie, the quiet baby of the family, is the only one to follow a traditional path. She marries Frankie and lives in the Italian part of the city.

Yet despite her marriage, Gracie's mother-in-law and others are always quick to recognize her otherness, claiming she is too Irish, her sisters too wild and different, her grandmother too strange. The Mallones could care less. And it is this fact that brings their family together and makes the events leading to Frankie's death so plausible. The Mallones are unabashedly Mallones. They are, simply, a family in the best sense of the word---brutally honest, unconditionally loving, fiercely loyal.

A lot of immigrant literature deals with individuals either accepting or casting aside their heritage. The Sisters Mallone offers a different perspective on growing up ethnic in America. The issue in this novel is not to accept or deny a single past but to champion how these sisters are a conglomeration of several heritages and environments. The days of growing up in an entirely ethnic community are fading fast if not already gone. True, cities still have large clusters of ethnic populations, but their members aren't isolated from other cultures unless they choose to be. The children in them are much more like the Mallones---members of one group constantly exposed to the habits and traditions or others. The result is the creation of a new breed. In the Mallone family's case, that culture is neither Italian nor Irish, but bits of both with other influences tossed in for color.

Structurally, this is a clever book. Ermelino creates her characters against the whodunit of Frankie's death without making the book anything like a mystery. Headlines reflecting major events of the time begin each section---a nice trick for creating the context necessary to make moments like Helen's arrest as a bootlegger's look-out and the various community reaction's to Frankie's death believable. And by choosing headlines that emphasize a tough, violent world, Ermelino makes Helen, Mary and Gracie's actions entirely plausible. Those who prefer quiet, polite, traditional women probably won't like the Mallones. But anyone who has known that type of tough yet feminine female who unapologetically takes what she wants from life while looking gorgeous will love these sisters. A gritty, glorious bunch.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Sisters Mallone at MostlyFiction.com

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"The Black Madonna"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark MAR 11 2001)

Magic and miracles are part of the everyday life for three mothers living on Spring Street in Little Italy, New York and their sons Jumbo, Nicky and Salvatore. This novel provides us with a view into their lives during the years 1948, 1936 and 1968; with each colorful vignette providing its own little twist, especially when fate needs an extra push.

In 1948, Teresa's son Nicky is showing his overweight friend, Jumbo, the nautical knot his father showed him on his only visit home; a knot so strong that it can hold anything including big ships. Nicky convinces Jumbo to swing across Tarzan style from one balcony to another. In a hair raising moment, the knot proves to hold up to Jumbo's weight and he makes it across. No matter how strong the knot, Jumbo's weight weakens the rope itself and Nicky falls three stories on his turn. The neighbors rush him to the hospital and he returns home unable to walk. Teresa, however, is relentless and won't accept any other truth than that Nicky will walk again. She seeks the help of Donna Rubina on Bedford Street who's from the same province and knows the old ways. Teresa is given a holy card of a gold Madonna with a black face with the instruction to "keep her hidden from yourself and your son." Now she waits, but not without first piecing together why her husband's checks have stopped coming in from around the world.

In 1936, Teresa's wealthy neighbor, Amadeo Pavese was married a year when his first wife gave birth to twin sons. She died during delivery and the second son was stillborn. Their priest asked Teresa, who was still nursing Nicky, to care for Salvatore the surviving twin; a convenient situation since Teresa's husband was permanently away on sailing ships. Meanwhile, the relatives in Viggianno, Italy get a little worried with this turn of events and fear that Amadeo will find a new wife who will prevent him from sending their usual living allowance to them. They cook up a plan to invite him back to their village to marry the beautiful Magdalena.

Antoinette Mangiacarne gave birth to five girls, before she hung a portrait of the Black Madonna in her kitchen and then she gave birth to a baby boy so big that he broke the midwife's scale. When the midwife guessed "Twenty-three pounds," Jumbo's father yelled it out the window. As any Italian mother would be, Antoinette was very proud and keeps the newspaper article on display to prove it. She and her five daughters excessively dote on Jumbo and even in his early thirties, he has not yet left home, still preferring to sleep in his tiny bedroom. And why should he? With four out of five sisters living in the same building each on a different landing, he gets to eat dinner all the way up the stairs until "the last supper" with his mother. But in 1968 Jumbo falls in love with a college educated Jewish girl. He calls together his two childhood friends, Salvatore and Nicky, to help him figure out how to tell his mother. And his mother calls on the resources of Teresa and Magdalena to keep her son at home.

Unlike some of the recent novels I've reviewed, there isn't really anything very deep about this novel, it's just a light story about people; a pleasure to read for the atmosphere it sets and the tone it evokes. The novel is alive with the sights, sounds, smells and taste of Little Italy and the village of Castelfondo. Between the people and the dialogue, the novel keeps a good pace, capturing the essence of living in a tight community where your neighbors are yours for life, for better or worse and everything is everyone's business. So go ahead and sit on the stoop awhile and catch up on some good old fashioned gossip.

Amazon readers' rating: from 13 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)


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About the Author:

Louisa ErmelinoLouisa Ermelino is a reporter for InStyle magazine. She's worked at Time and People magazines and for the television show Top Cops. She is a native of the Italian neighborhood in New York City that borders Greenwich Village and lives there with her husband Carlo Cutolo. They have three daughters: Ariane, Ruby and Lucy.

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