Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Garden of the Past: Vanzetti Plants His Hopes in Plymouth

       I wrote these words a decade ago about the street in North Plymouth, Mass., where Bartolomeo Vanzetti lived (published in "Beyond Plymouth Rock:Ties that Bind," an anthology of essays and memoirs about 20th Century history in Plymouth):
            "It's paved today, but Suosso's Lane is still a narrow public way off Court Street in North Plymouth, where Valente's Florist sits on the corner. Across Court Street are neighborhood fixtures like Charlie's Hardware Store. St. Mary's Church is just two short blocks north. Suosso's Lane is a short street, cut off almost immediately by High Cliff, the bluff that Bartolomeo Vanzetti and his North Plymouth neighbors climbed in order to look down on the seashore..."
            Published by Plymouth Public Library Corporation in 2002, edited by John Chaffee and Plymouth library staff members such as the late Lee Regan, reference librarian Bev Ness, and current library director Jen Harris, the 20th century history anthology was a great project for a town with a deep and (one of the few occasions when this adjective is appropriate) unique history.
            Given the glare of attention paid to the Pilgrims, the first real English-language community in what became the United States (pay no attention to those disreputable gold-diggers in Jamestown, Va.; I never have), it's easy for the town's later generations to get lost in the shadows.
            With memoirs by then-contemporary (now deceased) residents such as Alba Thompson, Peter Gomes, and Karin Goldstein and essays by many other local voices, the "Beyond Plymouth Rock" anthology remains a gold mine of local perspectives on change and growth in a growing community through a century of industrial breakthroughs, advances, losses, foreign wars, other challenges, and sustained vitality. (The books is available at http://www.support.plymouthpubliclibrarycorp.org/Beyond-Plymouth-Rock-Vol-I-The-Ties-That-Bind-BPR1.htm)                 Plymouth's 20th century, like America's, was fired by the expansion of new immigrant communities. North Plymouth, where Vanzetti found a home in 1913 after five years of disappointment in the promise of the 'new world' spent in New York City and a few smaller cities, was the center of the Italian community and other immigrant groups.
            Vanzetti, to continue the narrative, found a home on Suosso's Lane with the family of Vincenzo and Alphonsina Brini and their two children in a simple two-story house on Suosso's Lane:
            "There's an old garage behind it on one side of the lot and a garden area on the other side -- maybe the same garden where the Brinis grew vegetables and Vanzetti, their boarder, pulled weeds. At the street's dead end, railed concrete steps lead upward to a townhouse-style senior housing complex. The view from the bluff is still magnificent, though screened by trees. Parked cars in a black-topped lot take up space across the street from the Brinis' house. The unpaved lane would have seen few cars when Vanzetti came there to live in 1913."
            Across the street sat the the old wood frame building that served as the Amerigo Vespucci Hall, a social club and gathering place in the old days for "Plymouth's Italian colony."
            The essay I wrote for the anthology (Titled "Trial of the Century: Local Amnesia") continues with an incident I found in a book of oral histories.
            "Beltrando Brini, then age 13, chased a ball into a neighbor's vegetable garden on the last day he spoke to his friend as a free man. Vanzetti told him -- very gently, Brini recalled -- not to trample people's gardens or speak rudely to adults."
            Just one more point, the premise for distaff piece of that title: local amnesia. Vanzetti's arrest, conviction, and ultimately execution for a crime few people believe (or have ever believed) he committed remains a part of history the town of Plymouth has largely expurgated from its past. To quote again from the anthology:
            "Plymouth has always been ambivalent about Vanzetti, a defendant and arguably the central figure in one of the most famous criminal trials of the 20th century. By the end of the century even long-time Plymouth residents had largely forgotten that he lived [in Plymouth]... when he was arrested on a Brockton street car in 1920."

            My recently published novel, "Suosso's Lane," picks up from the factual account presented above. The novel departs from the historical record in inventing fictional characters who people Vanzetti's 1920s Plymouth, including the Mayflower-descendant suffragist who becomes his English teacher and eventually his lover. The story's 21st century characters include a nosy reporter digging into an old murder, a sharp-minded octogenarian who knows more about the events of Vanzetti's life than she's telling, and an African immigrant struggling with the starvation wages of contemporary service workers
            The book is available at: