The lens is on the women. It zooms in and pans out, capturing their life trajectories. Beginning with Umbertina, a first-generation immigrant, the novel traces four generations of Italian-American women as they explore their relationship with one another and discover their own identities.
Helen Barolini’s novel Umbertina is at once familiar, beautiful, tragic, and hopeful. Through its female characters, it amazes, frustrates, hurts, and finally blossoms. It takes generations of women to arrive at a place that feels grounded, re-establishing the foothold forfeited when families leave their homeland.
Although Barolini, being Italian-American herself, focuses the novel’s lens on “the personal quest of the Italian American experience,” it’s valuable to recognize the “universality of the themes” (Ahearn 139). Readers of all ethnicities and experiences will appreciate and relish this read.
Read our first post on Helen Barolini: Helen Barolini: The Dream Book
First-generation Umbertina is unstoppable in her fixation on survival; her daughter Carla disappoints with her persistent shallowness. Carla’s daughter Marguerite wrestles mightily with identity and role confusion and Marguerite’s daughter, Tina, named after her great-grandmother Umbertina, is the saving grace, the eventual fruit of all their labor.
It’s not hard to see why these women are the way they are. It’s understandable, due to the circumstances and the acculturation process they are born into. As Carol Bonomo Ahearn says in her article Definitions of Womanhood: Class, Acculturation, and Feminism, “Any life is a personal odyssey, lived out within a particular cultural and historical perspective”(139), and this is true for each of the successive Longobardi women.
Ahearn, in her discussion of the novel, outlines the stages often encountered in the acculturation process:
“The first stage is the immigrant stage of trust and hope—trust in one’s cultural values—and hope for a better life in a material sense; the second stage gives way to shame and doubt about one’s heritage, and a vague desire for new goals in life. This stage gives rise to the third stage of role confusion, where the goals of one’s heritage, one’s personal goals and the goals of the new culture (in this case America) all seem to be irrevocably at odds with each other; and the last stage which I call integrated autonomy, in which the three forces are resolved in a personal manner satisfactory to the specific individual”( 126).
This story is deliciously lengthy and involved (would make a great movie), so here I offer a partial and brief tracing of the women, their bonds and conflicts.
We meet Umbertina, known as goat-girl, while still living in the rural village of Castagna in the Calabria region of Italy. From the start, we know her as a bright and hearty individual, characteristics that serve her well as she is called to, in most ways, be the head of her family with her kind, but rather ineffectual husband, Serafino. After she emigrates to America with Serafino and her sons, Umbertina doesn’t look back. She knows that she cannot afford to do so.
“Once the unrooting had taken place, everything from then on had to go toward regaining strength in the transplantation. She was not of peasant stock for nothing; she did not tend her own fields without learning. Her family had been uprooted by misfortunes, they had suffered loss and shock; now they must concentrate on new root growth, here in this soil that favored them. What nonsense did Cristina and Domenico and all the others talk of sending money back, going back, buying land and starting again back there? Can one keep moving one’s roots and buds? Not and produce good fruit – that much she knew”(Barolini 110).
Umbertina’s sacrifice and her unflinching approach to hard work for the survival and betterment of her family are admirable. Although she never learns to read and write and continues to speak very broken English, she is successful in the ways she needs to be.
It’s only on her deathbed that she longs for home (and brings tears to the reader’s eyes):
“As Jake leaned over her to hear her better, she asked for a cup of water from the spring.
“What spring, Mama?” he asked.
“Castagna,” she whispered. Then she was gone.”(146).
What is less admirable, but can attributed to her being steeped in patriarchy, is Umbertina’s dismissal of her daughters. Carla, one of her two daughters and the youngest in the family, is not considered when it comes to the future of the family business. Even though Umbertina wields her ingenuity and strength by establishing and sustaining the business, she does not in any way allow this power to be transferred to her daughters.
“Anyway, her future was in her sons. They were becoming as American as anyone else…Umbertina, who had become a strong woman, did not ever consider that her daughters should be so; the future of the name and business was in her sons”(100).
Carla (There are no clear dates provided for Carla, which is interesting.)
Although excluded from any meaningful position in the family’s business, Umbertina does offer this advice:
“’The important thing,” she told her daughter, “is to find your place. Everything depends on that. You find your place, you work, and like planting seeds, everything grows. But you have to be watchful and stick to it.”(139).
These words would have better served her granddaughter, Marguerite. Carla had little use for her heritage and her immigrant parents’ way of life, little use for planting anything that didn’t yield status and money. But we sense we cannot blame Carla for her myopic focus when she never knew the earlier challenging times. She was born into a family that was quite well-established and being the youngest and a girl, she was regarded as rather inconsequential, a pawn to be plugged in and eventually married off.
“Carla’s desire to attend college is not taken seriously. Instead, she is pressed into service as a bookkeeper for the family business…Materially Carla can have whatever she wants—with one big proviso—so long as she maintains the close family bonds. Although there is no economic need for Carla to work for the family, the code still persists, probably due to distrust of anyone outside the family and the tradition of total reliance on the family”(Ahearn 133).
Readers get to know Marguerite and her daughter Tina in more depth and detail than Umbertina and especially Carla. Perhaps this is because author Barolini, like Marguerite, is a third-generation Italian-American woman. Barolini, also like character Marguerite, marries an Italian.
From early on, Marguerite is at odds with her parents and their obsessive focus on social climbing and concern for what it looks like:
“Marguerite’s parents, Carla and Sam, only want her to be happy, but they have only the definition of happiness that their generation can have: economic ease, marriage, respectability achieved through acquiring the accouterments, “just show” and without substance, or emotional connections, as far as Marguerite is concerned”(Ahearn 134).
Unlike her parents, Marguerite is drawn to her heritage, in particular her grandmother, Umbertina:
“Marguerite had always felt attracted to that mysterious old woman with whom she couldn’t even speak. There was a picture of her up in the attic in an oval gilt frame; she was a young woman then, standing straight and stiff at the side of nine-month-old Uncle Paul, who was propped up in a wicker high-chair and looking dazingly out from yards and yards of white clothing. It was with that handsome, proud, direct gazing, unflinching peasant face that Marguerite wanted kinship”(150).
As soon as possible, due to incompatibility with her parents, Marguerite moves out of the home.
“As each generation must define itself anew from the previous one, so must Marguerite, who ultimately achieves what…Carla only indistinctly feels a desire for, namely autonomy from the family.
“She opts not for riches of the world, but for riches of the spirit. She thinks that by marrying Alberto, twenty years older than she, and from an old Venetian family, she can learn from him”(Ahearn 134).
Indeed, she does learn from Alberto, yet needs to stand on her own. She finally states this basic proclamation after a torturous turned revelatory journey: “I can do as I feel”(222).
“This passage marks a freedom to define herself which, for reasons already noted, the Italian American women of the first generation, such as…Umbertina, did not possess, and the women of the second generation, such as…Carla, stuck in security, could not utilize. (Actually, the first generation were freer to define themselves than the second. However their definitions were to a large extent determined by economic forces.) Coupled with Marguerite’s own unique persona, class, acculturation and feminism have come together to make new choices possible for her. But this greater freedom in which Marguerite identifies more with the values of the New World than with the peasant values of la via vecchia [the old way] brings greater problems”(Ahearn 136).
These greater problems haunt Marguerite rather relentlessly:
“I wanted it to work. For years I worked at it, and maybe that was the trouble…laboring at something that should only have been accepted, without that uptight compulsion to better things that I, American, was born to. Better my life, my marriage, my husband. America the Betterful. “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” says Mother You-Better-Better-Yourself”(207).
Mercifully, the oldest of her two daughters, Tina, delivers solace to her mother’s angst:
“Tina is a bulldozer – no ego deficiency in her, she sucked whatever health still remained in me while I carried her and has flourished from my ground-up bones like some gorgeous wild bloom ever since. Eighteen and steady in her affections, her self-esteem, her nature. A beautiful girl. I love her. She is what I wanted to be”(203).
Much of Tina’s true understanding of her mother, Marguerite, develops after she dies when she intentionally sets out to discover more about Umbertina, who her mother longed to know better as well.
“Above the writing table, dangling from a piece of yarn, was the tin heart Tina remembered always having been in her mother’s room wherever they lived. “It’s from my grandmother Umbertina,” Tina had been told as a child. “She wore it when she was a goat girl in Calabria. Someday I’m going to find the place she came from.” Now Tina took the crudely shaped piece and ran her fingers over the hammered design. She wondered how it was worn. Then she knew what she was going to do this summer – she would go to Calabria to find Umbertina. My namesake, she thought; a strong woman who had direction in her life”(306).
Part three of the novel has us following Tina as she traces, literally and emotionally, the journeys of the women before her.
“Tina also comes to understand why her grandparents couldn’t give Marguerite what she needed. They were too caught up with the task of their generation, i.e., of trying to be middle-class American, and this included imitating the vocational idleness of middle-class women of that historical time. Tina is free of trying to be middle-class American. She simply was born into that station in life and is receptive to American feminist concepts”(Ahearn 138).
Following her mother’s untimely death, while attempting to process it all, Tina has this conversation with her partner:
“I think too much is made of this whole family business. After all, once you’re grown, you can live where and with whom you choose and have the life you choose.”
“Yes, sure, but maybe the point is you can’t grow up to get out for good if the family isn’t supportive in the beginning. A strong base is like a launching pad. But a weak one is just a swamp. I think that’s why my mother never got wholly away – there was no push upward from behind her. She was meant to fizzle out.”
“Oh, come on, Tina, she wasn’t a fizzle; she was a charming and lovely lady. Maybe she really liked and needed the turmoil of her life. Would she have been happier if she hadn’t tried a getaway?”
“Tina walked silently for a bit, thinking of this. “Maybe you’re right, Jason. She gave me so much nourishment, she must have had strengths I didn’t see”(319).
Readers know this to be true. Tina embodies strengths Marguerite possessed but was not able to step into fully due to her unanchored life.
Unknowingly drawing on her great-grandmother Umbertina’s words to her daughter, Carla, Tina wonders:
“It’s all a question of moves and positioning, Tina reflected. In the family, only Umbertina’s move had had at its center a firm purpose. She had positioned for survival; success followed on its own.
“Umbertina’s sons and daughters had engaged in other positionings – social ones that had as their steps better neighborhoods, bigger houses, the Rotary Club, country clubs, garden or bridge clubs, colleges.
“By the time it came to Tina’s mother, moves were not positioning but lack of it – an erratic, blind dashing around, away from every center and certainty. The fata morgana of her life was the conviction that someday, in the right place, she could start her work; yet each time she thought she approached it, it vanished”(390).
This center and certainty landed with Tina. This is one of the final passages, dialogue between Tina and her fiancé, Jason:
“Why rosemary? For remembrance?”
“Well, yes,” she laughed, “maybe that, too, but actually for old Umbertina. It’s the family women’s quaquaversal plant – wherever one of Umbertina’s clans descends, there also will be rosemary planted, for where it grows, the women of the house are its strength.”
“And what of the men?”
“They should grow fig trees, maybe,” she laughed. “But seriously, don’t give it a sexist interpretation! It doesn’t take anything away from men if their women are as strong as they. Strong men deserve strong women.”
Barolini’s Umbertina is a captivating and enjoyable read that in many ways comes full circle. Tina is able to commune with her great-grandmother Umbertina, while gaining a better understanding of both her grandmother and mother. With its medicinal properties and connection to remembrance, Tina’s planting rosemary is symbolic of the culmination of a discovery and healing process to which many of us can relate.
Helen Barolini is a Nasty Woman Writer.
© Maria Dintino 2023
Ahearn, Carol Bonomo. “Definitions of Womanhood: Class, Acculturation, and Feminism.” The Dream Book: An Anthology of Writings by Italian-American Women. Edited by Helen Barolini, Schocken Books, 1985, pp. 126-139.
Barolini, Helen. Umbertina. The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 1999. (Originally published in 1979.)