I recently read Valenti Angelo’s novel Golden Gate to my five-year-old son. The children’s book, published in 1939, tells the story of Nino, a young boy from Northern Italy who emigrates to California, passing briefly through Ellis Island and spending one night in “a lodging house run by a Neapolitan” somewhere on Bleecker Street (63).
It’s a compelling story. For one, it’s unusual for any American novel, let alone one meant for kids, to emphasize the under-told story of everyday Italians in California. Second, it offers a series of details, couched in terms accessible to a child, about how Italian immigrants negotiated their entrance into US life, suggesting ways new immigrants sometimes ignored or refigured assimilationist pressures.
Angelo (1897-1982) emigrated as a child from Massarosa (Tuscany) in 1905 and his family eventually settled in the town of Antioch, not far from San Francisco. He held a number of manual labor and factory jobs in and around Antioch, and later in San Francisco, until he landed a job at a photo-engraving shop in the city. It was there that he realized he had an artist’s mind. He wrote a number of children’s novels—Golden Gate is part of a series that feature Italian kids and take place both in the U.S. and in Italy. Angelo’s real calling, however, was as a book illustrator and engraver.
Golden Gate (title page) (The Viking Press, 1939)
Among his book illustrations are those that adorn the first edition of John Fante’s Dago Red (1940).
John Fante's Dago Red (1940), Cover by Valenti Angelo
(picture courtesy of Stephen Cooper)
He preferred linoleum (linocuts) to wood in creating his engravings, and he worked on all kinds of books; his work helped establish the stark, geometrical aesthetic we now recognize as distinctly midcentury.
"Subway Entrance, New York City" (1969) "Christ" (date unknown)
The images in Golden Gate reminded me and my son of those of another California-Italian American children’s writer and illustrator, Leo Politi, the centennial of whose birth is being celebrated throughout much of Southern California and the Central Valley this year.
"The Watts Towers," by Leo Politi from Song of the Swallows by Leo Politi
The novel itself feels a bit dated, at least for a cookies-and-juice crowd: excessive description; old-fashioned word choice; questionable depictions of Native Americans. But at the same time it’s surprisingly fresh and contemporary in a number of ways. For starters, there is more than a passing reference to Nino’s immigrant neighbors, mostly Irish and Chinese families. And the narrative shares a particular Italian American sensibility that I found to be downright revealing.
When Nino and his grandfather gather clay and stones around their farm and build Nino’s mother an outdoor oven so she can bake bread—“just like the bread back home in the village” (101)—I couldn’t help but notice how the novel shows Italian immigrant place-making. Before the oven gets used, Nino carves a rooster out of clay and fixes it on the oven as a decorative touch and as a reminder of a similar rooster he had back in Italy. In fact, when my son asked me why Nino had done that, realizing that the rooster had nothing to do with the utility of the oven, I had to refrain from starting a lecture on Italian American folk art (it took all my energy not to gather up our things and drive him out to Fresno to see the Underground Gardens right then and there).
Likewise, when Nino goes to school for the first time, Angelo characterizes how the boy might have stood out—with his broken English, the wine be brought with his lunch, and his odd clothing (he goes to school wearing a smock—the classic Italian grembiulino kids still wear to school today— rather than the overalls the other boys were wearing).
Cover of Nino (1938), the first novel in the series,
with protagonist in obligatory grembiulino
It’s very much a boy’s story, and we see everything through Nino’s eyes. And of course I would have liked to have heard more about his mother, Allinda, or his baby sister, Gloria, whom she gives birth to under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Certainly, too, I have to wonder what kind of readers would have picked up the novel in 1939, just before Italy and the US went to war, and what kinds of lessons were taken away about Italian Americans. Nevertheless, today it remains an interesting example of how books meant for children also play a part in shaping what it means to be Italian in the United States.