The Hunger Saint
by Olivia Kate Cerrone
Bordighera Press

"He felt the grit and dust of sediment and sulfur ore become as much a part of him as the vibrations of the rock drill..."

This historical novella is set in Sicily during the early years after World War II. Mussolini is no longer in power. The main character is an adolescent boy named Ntoni. The boy's father has recently died working in the sulfur mines. His signed contract provided a loan to support his family of five. With this untimely death, the mother must repay the loan, or send one or more of her sons into the mine to work off this soccorso morto debt. “We need to help out, all of us” was how the mining community interpreted this. That is why Ntoni, the oldest child, found himself in a mine with other carusi—boys working long days beside the sweaty miners in cramped, hot tunnels.

Punishment for mistakes was severe. Ntoni and a boy who picked a fight with him were given the most dangerous assignments: to check for poisonous gas and to drill and install dynamite sticks for blasting closed, failing shafts. Only a religious card Ntoni carried showing St. Calogero, the Hunger Saint, and an older friend—Ziu (uncle) Peppi, the mine’s mechanic—offered him any hope of escape from the mines.

The author sets in motion the action needed to resolve the lad’s dilemma; it starts with dangerous rumblings from the underground mine. First, the destruction of Ziu Peppi’s shop leads Ntoni to find money secreted away. A few weeks later as he sets a pillar, growling warns of a collapsing chamber. Running toward the mine's entrance, Ntoni sees the steps crumble, taking along with them the carusi climbing up. An access shaft cut in the rock above a nearby tunnel provides him and a few others their only exit route. Scurrying up a rope ahead of the heartless miner who kicks others back down, Ntoni is safe but unaccounted for.

When a twelve-year-old is thrown alone into a new environment, there is no time to notice details. Cerrone chooses adults to fill in needed information. It is Ziu Peppi who comments on Ntoni’s hands stained yellow from handling the crystalline sulfur ore. Angry interactions with Ntoni’s mother and younger brother on weekends demonstrate the anguish in his home since his father’s death. In-depth research is indicated by the book’s extensive endnotes.

Great skill allows the writer to meld the underlying facts so cleverly into the story that the reader experiences it emotionally, not just mentally. For example, the reader of Cerrone’s book can almost feel the heat of a volcanic island like Sicily where underground temperatures may reach 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Confirmed by existing magazine photos of Sicilian miners wielding pick axes and working naked, the homosexual activities between miners and boys mentioned obliquely in the story is quite possible. Italian words and phrases deftly integrated into the narrative also bring alive Ntoni’s dangerous world for today’s reader. For example, Ntoni and his fellow carusi carried baskets of rich sulfur ore up steep steps toward the above-ground stone calcaroni (furnaces). One can easily see from this how the author has mastered providing the reader with enough contextual clues to determine the meaning of the foreign terms.

For this novella, Cerrone has created the perfect plot line. The main character daily grows more resolved to escape his lot in life as he survives trials and losses in the mine and his family. The reader bonds with Ntoni based on his youth, need, and integrity of character. Although the hero is twelve, the book’s content makes it more suitable as a teen or adult novella.

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