I’ll be honest. When I first picked up Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli, I was less than enthused about reading it. The cover was boring. (Yes, I do judge a book by it’s cover.) Once I began reading, however, I was drawn into the story. I didn’t know until reading the afterword that the story was based on actual events. That shed a whole new light on what I had read.
Calogero and his family are Sicilian immigrants living in Tallulah, Louisiana. The year is 1899. The South is trying to rebuild from the Civil War, and Jim Crow laws are in full effect. In Louisiana, like in many other parts of America, Sicilians are viewed as lower than dirt. They are seen as criminals and are trusted by few. Calogero, his cousin, and his uncles are grocers in Tallulah, and they deal with these prejudices day after day. Calo doesn’t really understand why these prejudices exist. What makes white people better that black people or Italian people? Why can some people enter the ice cream parlor while others have to be served at the back door? It just doesn’t make sense.
Calo does, however, make friends in the midst of this turmoil. He joins a group of black teens in a midnight gator hunt in the swamps. Although he is terrified the entire time, the hunt actually serves to cement friendships between Calo, his cousin Cirone, and the black teenagers. Calo is also deeply in love with Patricia, a black girl he met while working at his uncles’ grocery.
Many white people in Tallulah are noticing that Calo and his family spend a lot of time with the town’s black community, and they don’t like it. Some of the more powerful men are just looking for a way to wipe Calo and his family out of Tallulah. Can things ever change? What will become of Calo and his family? Read Alligator Bayou to find out.
It is clear when reading this book that author Donna Jo Napoli has done her homework. She includes a detailed afterword and notes on her research. These tools may serve as jumping off points to learn about a little known prejudice in Reconstruction America. Napoli’s research shows that Italian Americans were reviled across the United States, not just the South. Alligator Bayou is an excellent book to begin discussions on prejudice and how various groups of people have been treated in our nation’s history.