Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sciatu Mio by Frank Pennisi

Today's featured book is Sciatu Mio by Frank Pennisi.

Frank Pennisi writes about the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, New York based on some of his own personal experience. He was born there in 1942 and knows its history from the perspective of a native son. He has first hand awareness about the prejudice realized by Italian immigrants and their families as they tried to assimilate into American society and seek new lives and opportunities.

His book, Sciatu Mio, chronicles the history of multiple generations of a particular Italian family, and it is a saga of control. Who has control over the sulfur mines in Sicily? The New York City piers? The Red Hook streets? The family members and friends? Of who will marry whom? Of who can really be trusted?

It represents a perpetual power struggle, decisions to be made and trying not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which could prove to be dangerous if not fatal. Lies, deceit and conspiracy are rampant. How does a young person survive and prosper in this environment?

Growing up in Southern California, although my family roots are in North Carolina, I didn’t have the slightest idea that a Mafia or organized crime even existed. Okay, perhaps I led a sheltered life, but until I began a married life in the Albany, New York area, this was something to which I had never been exposed. Then the original Godfather movie burst onto the scene in 1972, and I was mesmerized and stunned to learn that there really existed a culture where neighborhoods were clearly defined by nationality, and there actually was a group of families perpetually battling for control of commerce in our modern age! Organized crime? What on earth was that? But I quickly learned that it was not just the figment of an author’s imagination or merely fodder for fiction and the movies. It was real.

What is the current impact of organized crime? Don’t lull yourself into a complacent belief that this was all in the past. Try to conduct business from one borough of New York to another, and even today you will see exactly what happens. It’s all about territorial control.

Which instances in Pennisi’s book are firmly entrenched in his memories and which are purely fictional, one would have to ask him. He tells us, “Growing up in an Italian ghetto in Brooklyn's Red Hook during the 40s and 50s, I was immersed in the culture. I spoke Sicilian before I spoke English. As an only child, my father was 50 years old when I was born, he raised me as a single parent, and I was his pupil. He told stories of The Sicily he left behind and loved, and I was fascinated. Whenever he had to work my grandmother, Santa, was my teacher. She spoke no English, but she was the sole of the earth. I owe my life to these two, and I am who I am because of what they taught me about life. And when I met Orazio and Lina Pennisi twenty years ago at their castle in Sicily, it rekindled all of the passion I grew up with and inspired me to write Sciatu Mio.”

Reading this book made me wonder if there are cycles of evil that plague certain families? Do they have to be from the old country for there to be instances of unconscionable behavior or are many people in our current world simply silent victims of the same despicable crimes? One theme that frequently repeats in the story is “The more the world changes, the more it is the same.”

Although this is a thoroughly fascinating story, be prepared that there is considerable time-hopping and generation-hopping involved, and due to the nature of the tale, there is some mature language, though not nearly as heavily infiltrated as many other books covering the same topics. Remember that the Red Hook neighborhoods were not exactly like Manhattan’s posh upper east side. Wikipedia indicates that “In 1990 Life named Red Hook as one of the ‘worst’ neighborhoods in the United States and as ‘the crack capital of America.’”

Frank Pennisi is obviously sharing a moving story that is close to his heart, and I personally absolutely love Italy and the friendly, passionate Italian people. Perhaps that is why I was attracted to my half-German/half-Italian husband to whom I’ve been married for over thirty-three years and one of the reasons why I found this story so intriguing.

In a nutshell, Sciatu Mio provides detailed and emotional insight into the conflict, prejudice and plight of immigrant Italian families. How far have we evolved remains to be seen.

Amazon Book Description

Based on the life of Frank J. Pennisi’s own father, Giuseppe, Sciatu Mio is the sequel to his debut, The Prince of Sackett Street. Sciatu Mio is a rich and multi-layered romantic novel spanning three generations of the Parisi family, from 1850-1985, featuring Michael from Red Hook, Brooklyn, his father Giuseppe, and his great grandfather, Barone Salvatore from Sicily. Historical events are interwoven with stories of the horrific treatment of the Carusi children for control of the sulfur mines in Floristella and the brutal Mafia wars for control of the New York docks.

Gripping, tense, and at times ironic and humorous, this page turner will keep readers riveted as they wonder if Salvatore, Giuseppe, and Michael find their sciatu mio despite the tangled webs of deceit and treachery. Sciatu mio means “my breath” and is the ultimate expression of love. Not everyone in life is lucky to find their one true love, but if they do they have found their sciatu mio.

More Insight from Frank Pennisi

Growing up, my father would tell me stories about how our family in Sicily came from nobility, and that they lived in castles. That was hard to imagine since my father and I lived in a three-room cold water flat with a bathroom in the hallway. When I was 17 my father died, and I was on my own.

Thirty years later, my wife Carolyn and I found ourselves in beautiful Taormina, Sicily and decided to look into the family roots. I wasn't sure this was such a good idea recalling the characters out of Red Hook. We drove to Piazza Pennisi south of town. The piazza was surrounded by stately palm trees and a magnificent 200 year old Arab Norman castle in the midst of an enchanting tropical giardini. As we drove up to the gates, I couldn't help but think of my father and the stories he once told - maybe they weren't all myths. The name printed under the bell was Orazio Pennisi.

A fragile voice came over the speaker, "Che sai?"

I answered "Sono Francesco Pennisi di Stati Uniti volglio trovare me famiglia."

And so began the incredible story of how I found my family. They introduced themselves as Orazio and Lina Pennisi di Floristella. They were very cordial and asked us to stay for dinner, which we did. We exchanged addresses and telephone numbers, but we never established bloodline.

It was Christmas morning in Myrtle Beach and the memories of Sicily were 2 months behind us when the phone rang. It was Orazio and Lina wishing us Buon Natale. He asked us to come back to Sicily and stay with them because the family wanted to get to know us. We arrived in Catania in April, and Etna was covered with snow. Orazio assigned us our room and said, "You can come and go as you wish, here are the keys."

When we were alone, I turned to Carolyn and said, "Can you imagine, from a kid in Red Hook living in a ghetto and now I have the keys to the castle?"

We had a fabulous time meeting family members, eating at family functions and just learning about this wonderful noble family. My heart belonged to Orazio, and at 85 he was the oldest of the family and out of respect everyone called him the Barone. He and Lina never had children, and it seemed they had adopted us. The day we had to leave was a sad day for me. We felt like family even though we never established bloodline.

I kissed Orazio as we got ready to leave and said, "I'm so proud of this family, the history and accomplishment."

Orazio looked at me and said, "You are proud of us? You started with nothing and on your own you have become a Signore and we are proud of you."

As I tried to hold back tears I attempted to give back the keys, but he pushed my hands aside and said, "These keys are yours for when you come back again."

I could no longer hold back the tears. I did not have to search for my family in Sicily, I found Orazio. When we say goodbye, I told him, "ti abbraccio" and we tell him, "ti amo" and he tells us, "I love you very much."

About Author Frank Pennisi

Born in 1942 in Red Hook Brooklyn, Frank J. Pennisi is the only child of Sicilian immigrants. He grew up among the stories of Italians and Sicilians and was touched by their plight to overcome the prejudices against them in America. He graduated Long Island University with a B. A. in History in 1964 and started teaching in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Promoted to Dean after his second year, he drove a taxicab to pay for his Masters in Education. In 1992, his last year he was coordinator of Crisis Intervention for Special Education on Staten Island.

His first book, The Prince of Sackett Street, (1989) was an immigrant story about his father’s life in Sicily and America.
Frank Pennisi

His second book, Nothing Sacred on The Mount, (1992) was about the struggles of six Special Education teachers in New York City dealing with an educational system that was broken.

His third book, Sciatu Mio, (2011) "You are the reason why I breathe" is a romantic, historical novel with stories for control of the sulfur mines in Sicily to the wars between the Irish and Italians for control of the N.Y.C. docks.

Frank and his wife Carolyn live in the small town of Briarcliffe Acres in South Carolina, where he was elected Mayor as a write-in candidate. They love to cook and entertain with friends and family and share their wonderful stories of their travels to Europe and especially Sicily. They take pride in their Italian garden and have absolutely gone head over heels over their new member of their family, a Havanese pup they rescued named BJ.

Visit again in two weeks to see the next selection by a Beach Author Network writer! And don't forget to visit for more information about what is happening in the worlds of our writers. 

Mary Anne Benedetto

Author of Eyelash, 7 Easy Steps to Memoir Writing: Build a Priceless Legacy One Story at a Time!,  Never Say PerfectFrom Italy with Love & Limoncello, Write Your Pet's Life Story in 7 Easy Steps!.

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