Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli

Sicilians in Louisiana? I knew about Cajuns, from Arcadia, Evangeline and all that jazz, French Creoles, and the French influence in New Orleans, even some Spanish culture and influence thrown in there, but Sicilians? Apparently,

“During the mid to late 1800’s large numbers of Sicilians came to the United States and settled in New Orleans where there were the most opportunities for work in the cotton, vegetable and fish markets. New Orleans had the largest population of Sicilians at this time.”

According to this website on Sicilian culture, the events that form a background for this novel of a Sicilian boy in southern Louisiana in the late 1800’s are true. In 1890, the chief of of police in New Orleans, David Hennessey, was assassinated. SInce he was investigating the Sicilian Mafia before he was killed, hundreds of Italian immigrants were arrested in connection with his death, and six men were indicted, tried . . . and acquitted. However, some of them, at least, were still in jail after their acquittal, and eleven Italian immigrants were pulled from the jailhouse, beaten, shot, and two of them lynched, one hung from a lamppost in the streets of New Orleans.

And I never heard anything about this episode in American history. Alligator Bayou takes place in 1899, after the Crescent CIty lynchings as they’re called, and in the strory a group of Sicilian immigrants are living in a small town trying to make a new life for themselves after fleeing the violence in New Orleans. One of these Sicilians is fourteen year old Calogero Scalise, who works in his uncle’s grocery store, takes lessons from a white man named Frank Raymond, and has a crush on a beautiful girl named Patricia.

I was fascinated with this story, mostly because I’d never heard anything about Sicilians in Louisiana, much less all the Mafia scare-induced prejudice toward Italians in the South. When I think Italian Americans, I’m thinking of New Jersey. Anyway, good story, sad, but well-written with a good portrayal of what it was like too be non-white, caught between cultures in the Deep South around the turn of the century.

Now I want to see the 1999 movie that I found while researching the background for this novel: Vendetta starring Christopher Walken. Has anyone seen it? Is it any good?

3 thoughts on “Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli

  1. Hi Sherry,
    I haven’t read Alligator Bayou yet, but I suggest you read more about the Hennessy case and lynching before seeing the film. There’s a short and objective chapter about the events in Dr Humbert Nelli’s excellent book, The Business of Crime. You might also have a look at my website to decide if you want to read about it in greater detail:
    Then I’d see the movie. Like a lot of Hollywood inventions, I think you’ll find a lot of distance between the screenplay and what actually happened. Vendetta also presents one of the all-time goofiest, most inaccurate portrayals of New Orleans on film, but any movie with Mr. Walken as a villain is worth renting!
    Best regards,
    Tom Smith

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