The portrait that emerges of a small Sicilian sulfur-mining town in post-war Italy in Olivia Kate Cerrone’s The Hunger Saint is grim. Indeed, she sets the scene in the opening lines of the novel when she writes: “The miners draped a soiled loincloth over the face of old Misciu and continued to work. No one was allowed to move the body until the shift’s end.” After a few pages, the reader feels as though bits of sulfur are soiling her hands while reading this account of the exploited child laborers and poor townspeople who power the mines in the fictional town of Raccolto.
The effect is such that Cerrone’s book oozes authenticity, which makes sense since it draws inspiration and background material from a collection of oral histories provided by surviving miners in central Sicily’s Valguarnera Caropepe region. As part of her research, Cerrone met many former miners and participated in an oral storytelling project. The slim, 99-page book was published by Bordighera Press, a nonprofit publishing house that specializes in books about and by Italians and Italian-Americans. The press’s books are known for their deep research and scholarship – and Cerrone’s novel is no exception.
The Hunger Saint tells the story of a young boy named Ntoni who in 1948 finds himself working at the sulfur mine where his father had worked. To be clear, he is working in his father’s stead, despite his young age. His father died after an accident in the mine. When he arrived at home on a mule-driven cart, he was “delirious, the entirety of him covered in blood and soot.” We learn later that Ntoni’s father may or may not have been planning an escape to France, where he would have gone to work at another mine. His son quickly begins grappling with a similar question – something that lends suspense to Cerrone’s tale.
Ntoni is hesitant about his new role in the family. And he prays to Saint Calogero – the Hunger Saint of the book’s title and the patron saint of Raccolto – to deliver him from this scary, grimy, underground existence. And it’s no wonder. Cerrone studs the narrative with little details that illustrate the young boy’s daily life. To wit, she writes, “Ntoni brought his hands to his face to wipe the mucus away. A black, stick substance webbed between his fingers.” Working underground for so long, she writes, “disoriented him.”
Through Ntoni, the reader gets a schooling not only in the rigors of sulfur mining but also in the specifics of a horrific employment system called “soccorso morto.” It refers literally to “help” or “aid” for the “dead” but here has a specific financial meaning: a loan to poor families in exchange for allowing the children to work in the mines. In one chilling line, Cerrone tells us, “The soccorso morto could only be forgiven in death.” In the abstract, child labor tales are horrific. Cerrone, however, makes the abstract real in this book, doubling down on the horrific.
Readers of The Hunger Saint will emerge with an interesting, if highly focused, Italian vocabulary of which the book is notably full. In addition to “soccorso morto,” Cerrone uses words like ‘carusi,’ which refers to the child laborers, and ‘calcaroni,’ to describe the stone furnaces where the sulfur rocks were melted and refined. Readers who have a familiarity with Italian will find this especially gratifying.
Hovering in the background of every scene is the knowledge that World War II has changed everything for the characters and for Italy. The book takes place in 1948, in the immediate post-war period, which for many in Raccolto barely feels “post.” Indeed, as Cerrone writes, “People staggered about, dazed, uncertain of the new government that replaced the Fascists.” In Palermo, damage by the air raids during the war was still untouched and there was little work in the surrounding towns and cities.
For the book’s characters, war has obliterated some of the finesses of polite society where people who have long lived together must peacefully co-habitate. Ntoni’s family has nothing – Cerrone tells us the boy develops “a taste for dirt,” since meals are often skipped. Shortly before he goes to work in the mines, his mother is forced to scavenge in the garbage for food. A crowd of onlookers begins to heckle her, shouting “Cattiva madre! Brutta madre!” Literally: ‘Bad mother. Ugly mother.’ One man seizes the basket she’d been using to collect food and the narrator imagines them tearing “her apart like the wild dogs that roamed the countryside.”
War has led to such unspeakable poverty that Ntoni’s work is essential. On the surface, at least, his mother shows little pity for him because so much is riding on his ability to work. Early in the book, when he brushes off her entreaties that he take the first bath of the evening to wipe away the grime of the mines, she turns almost savage in her response. Between the lines, you can see her desperation as a mother who has mouths to feed. Ntoni must step up.
The only positive thing Ntoni can recall of the war is the day after it was over and the Americans passed through Raccolto, handing out chewing gum. Cerrone has an eye for details that resonate. She writes that Ntoni saved his piece of gum, “never tampering with its wrapper. He spent hours studying its red letters like a code or a relic: W-R-I-G-L-E-Y-‘-S.”
As Cerrone tells it, the sulfur mines in the book provided an interesting counterpart to the war. While many left the town of Raccolto to enlist, Ntoni says his father “had not known war. Somehow he’d managed to stay underground, mining the tunnels for Mussolini’s fuel.”
The mines provide cover for other things, too. In one gruesome scene early in the book, Ntoni enters a mine at night only to come upon “two nude bodies, one dwarfed by the other in size. Their movements violent and slow. The boy’s face pressed against the wall, as if to merge his flesh into rock, and he whimpered. The miner squeezed a fist around the boy’s thin neck.”
When he relays what he’s seen to his uncle, Ziu Peppi admonishes him, saying he should “keep quiet. No one wants to hear it.” Between the lines, one imagines Ziu Peppi thinking of the war he’s managed to survive and the atrocities he witnessed – and maybe even committed. For him, nothing can equal the depth of misery experienced then – even the horrific knowledge that young boys are being raped in the mines.
In addition to a highly detailed vision of life in a sulfur mine town, readers of this book will find genuine mystery. Almost as soon as the book begins, Ntoni is hatching a plot to escape the mines. And escape is the key word – Cerrone scarily conveys a sense that in this life, it’s not easy getting out alive. One of the more gripping scenes in the book occurs toward the end when Ntoni grasps onto the rungs of a ladder as he feverishly tries to escape the mine, following an accident. This review won’t provide any spoilers though no one who ventures even just a few pages into the book should be surprised to learn not everyone makes it to safety.