Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Garden of Experience: Still Learning About Vanzetti's Era in Old North Plymouth

             Sixty-five people turned up for my Authors Series program in Kingston last week, certainly more than I anticipated. It was a great evening, though I botched the challenge of holding a microphone in one hand while speaking -- especially while trying to read from "Suosso's Lane" with the other (but even when simply speaking from hand-held notes). Things got so bad that a friend emerged from the audience, manifesting by my side as if from nowhere (like Athena in the Iliad), and held the mike steady for the entire remainder of my presentation. Note to self: make sure there's a fixed microphone holder before you attempt public speaking again.  
             I keep learning from this experience. Another thing I learned is that my book's peculiar title, "Suosso's Lane," wakes memories.
              Explaining her interest in the book, one would-be reader told me that her grandparents on both sides were immigrants who settled in North Plymouth. One side of her family owned the property where a school was built (Vanzetti was employed as a laborer during its construction), operated a store, and offered lodging on one the neighborhood's main streets. Her grandparents on the other side ran a bakery and made and delivered Italian horn bread. Another of her relatives from the early days lived on Cherry Street, still a main street and the one where Vanzetti spent his final year in Plymouth, boarding at the home of Mary Fortini. 
              Italian horn bread does not receive a mention in the novel "Suosso's Lane," though I'm sorry now that I overlooked it. (However, I did find this story about the "beloved Italian specialty, only in North Plymouth" written by my former Globe colleague Christine Legere at
               "Suosso's Lane" is largely about politics, society, conflict between big money and poor laborers, anarchists, bombs, a miscarriage of justice, and the consequences of these conflicts on many lives. 
             And yet one of the side effects -- and benefits, perhaps -- is that the tough story of the Sacco-Vanzetti case with which the book primarily concerns itself wakes memories, and possibly interest, in a very different, but real time in America. There are lessons we can can learn from that time. 
              One big lesson concerns immigration itself. Those grandparents and other ancestors who immigrated to the US from countries where opportunities were in shorter supply to a place where opportunity for betterment and freedom of thought went hand in hand did become Americans -- and in a relatively short time. The twentieth century, for all its social and economic problems, absorbed people from other places and turned them from "others" to "us" in a relatively short time. 
               However, in the century's early decades many native-born Americans believed the United States was being overrun and weakened by newcomers, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. They particularly despaired over the number of people who were coming here from Italy. This is a truth I did not fully appreciate until reading and researching for a book about Vanzetti's Plymouth. 
                 Under the weight of national prejudice against Italians -- and also Poles, Russians, Serbs, Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, Syrians and others -- the fear of subversion and revolution prompted by the Russian Communist Revolution in 1917, the opposition of American socialists, anarchists and others to the country's participation in World War 1, anarchist bombs and the Red Scare, America began to narrow its borders in the 1920s. The first restrictive act aimed at the new immigration was called the Italian Exclusion Act. When Calvin Coolidge signed it in 1924 he said (to paraphrase), 'it's obvious that some groups will just never learn to live in a democratic society.'
                   Has any prediction ever been more wrong? The phone books everywhere today are full of the descendants of the Italian, Polish, Jewish, et al. immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th century. 
                   When I was looking for memories of Vanzetti's days in Plymouth, I spoke to a man who grew up in North Plymouth, told me his father (now deceased) knew all about the Sacco-Vanzetti case, and now lived himself in another part of Plymouth. Italian Americans live all over Plymouth, he told me. 
                   "Italians in Chiltonville," he said, referring to a part of town with large expensive properties and residents who can trace their ancestry back to Plymouth's beginnings. "Imagine that. My grandfather would have never believed it."