by Alethea Williams
My grandmother immigrated to ‘Merica from the mountainous Tyrol region of Austria, which had just been ceded to Italy as the spoils of World War I. Saddened at leaving her family and the agricultural way of life she knew, she never could bring herself to repeat the harrowing two-week long boat ride that brought her here. The memories of paralyzing fear heightened by extreme nausea stayed fresh in her mind. She never again visited her beloved Val di Non.
Where other children might see their grandparents at holidays and vacations, my grandmother, my nona, lived next door. So it would be logical to assume that I knew her story and that it would be easy for me to write a novel of a Tyrolean woman escaping the poverty of war-ravaged Europe by accompanying her new husband to the coal mines of southwest Wyoming.
That assumption would be wrong.
|The author's mother and her Nona|
Because of societal pressure to fit in and be American, when asked, Nona reluctantly agreed that our heritage was Italian. In the 1950s everybody knew about pizza and spaghetti; no one in the small town where I grew up had ever heard of canederli or polenta. I took it for granted that everyone of Italian descent ate their canned peas cold with vinegar and oil, and their rice was eaten topped with brown butter and bacon bits.
I did hear the story of Nona, at the age of twelve, being passed to a rich family to work off a debt her father owed. She survived by eating potato peels and the crusts of brown bread. I was aghast at the thought of a mere child being bonded out for labor. By the age she was in the story, I already towered over my tiny grandma, probably the result of my nutritious American diet and multivitamins.
I’m happy to say I wasn’t completely oblivious. Some questions did occur to me along the way. They owned farm animals in Val di Non? Yes; the lower level of the houses were stables and the people lived on the second story. Well, if her parents owned land, why were they so poor? Nona would get a faraway look, and then say she couldn’t explain. We spent a lot of time together in her kitchen. Words were easy, concepts were difficult. If I asked for the words for cup, fork, arm, leg, she would say, “Do you want to know how I say it, or the nice way?” The “nice” way being Italian, and not the mountain dialect—which is in danger of dying out now even in the Tyrol.
But I never asked the right questions. The deeper questions. The questions that would have allowed me to write a story based on her life, even twenty years after she was gone.
Many people tell me now they’re disappointed that Willow Vale isn’t a true story because it seems so real. Even though my main character, Francesca, comes to America in 1924 with her new husband to a coal mining town in Wyoming just like my grandmother, the similarities between Francesca and Nona end there. The rest I had to research, and although I’m happy to say no one has reported major inaccuracies in the book, I’m sorry that I didn’t know as a kid some of the things I later included in the novel. I think Nona would have been happy to know I finally realize there are mountains of difference between Italians and Tyroleans, the Dolomite range of mountains as a matter of fact.
Nona said she was pretty when she was young and her picture on the cover of Willow Vale bears her out. I’m flattered when people say I look like her. I’ve been asked what she would have thought to have her picture on my novel, and I like to think she would be pleased—although I’m willing to bet she would be nonplussed by the fact that the distance to the Tyrol is so short in this modern world of virtual travel that her pretty face can be accessed on screens anywhere in the world.
In memory of Nona
1899 – 1979
Willow Vale, the story of a Tyrolean immigrant’s journey to America after WWI. Willow Vale won a 2012 Wyoming State Historical Society Publications Award. In her second novel, Walls for the Wind, a group of New York City immigrant orphans arrive in Hell on Wheels, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Walls for the Wind is a WILLA Literary Award finalist, a gold Will Rogers Medallion winner, and placed first at the Laramie Awards in the Prairie Fiction category.