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Sonia Cancian, Families, Lovers, and their Letters. Italian Postwar Migration to Canada

Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2010, pp. 192, Cloth $ 55.00, Paper $ 34,95

How did Italian emigrants and those they left behind experience migration to Canada in the post World War ii era? To find the answer, in her recent book Families, Lovers, and their Letters: Italian Postwar Migration to CanadaSonia Cancian undertakes a close analysis of 400 personal letters written between 1946 and 1971. The correspondents she examines include: an engaged couple writing each other between Montreal and Venice; a husband and wife respectively residing in Powell River (British Columbia) and Arcugnano; a mother in Venice writing to her daughter and son-in-law in Montreal; a father and mother in Spilimbergo to their son in Michel (British Columbia), and then Montreal; a young man in Rome to the woman he loved in Montreal; a sister in Ripabottoni to her brother and sister-in-law in Montreal; and a mother in Ascoli Piceno to her daughter in Montreal. Some of the sets of family letters Cancian uses are two-way exchanges and allow her the rare opportunity of analyzing both sides of the dialogue between migrants and loved ones at home. As the stories of the correspondents unfold, readers will find themselves caught up in another time and other places.

Letters were not an incidental part of the migration process; they were at the core of it: they provide insights into the motivations behind migration, emotional connections across continents, and «the materialization of public policy in the lives and life choices of ordinary people» (p. 37). Cancian does an excellent job of placing her reading of the letters in the context of a growing literature on personal correspondence. She includes discussions of the work of many historians concerned with migration letters, some of whom, such as George Stephenson, wrote as long ago as the interwar period, but most of whom, like David Gerber, have published in the last decade. Cancian’s historiographical overview also references scholars whose interests focus on romance or love letters such as Karen Lystra, as well as researchers based in Italy (Fabio Caffarena). The author’s deep understanding of the literature on letters, including its theoretical perspectives, conceptual frameworks, and diverse methods of inquiry, is one of the most valuable aspects of her book.

The operation of strong kinship networks constitutes the first of three major themes that Cancian finds embedded in the letters. She examines the functioning of these networks by looking at the movement of words, information, objects, and people; she then considers the ways kinship networks supported those who emigrated and those who stayed at home; and finally she looks at how kinship networks controlled those involved in the migration process, encouraging the performance of duties and responsibilities. Family, not the individual, she concludes, was paramount and «advice and encouragement» cohabited with «proscription and authority» (pp. 57, 65).

Gender concerns, both as text and subtext, constitute the second theme that predominated in the 400 letters under examination. Cancian concludes, «gender norms and gender roles were not only reified, but also reinforced by the letter writers, and subsequently reinscribed in a rigid division of transnational labour» (p. 72). There were two arenas of gendered behavior: the world of work and the reproduction and domesticity of the home. In both areas correspondents perceived opportunities and limitations for men and women as the letters ranged across subjects like clothes, visa requirements, leisure activities, plans for the future, and the difficulties of being separated. Gender issues in the letters will resonate with readers of the book, as they appear to do with the author herself. In interpreting one letter, Cancian notes with some passion, «Compared to her life in Arcugnano […] her description seems like a fairly comfortable existence. Or was it? In my view, her description of life in Powell River also reads like that of a gilded cage. Gone are the agency, decision making, and movement she exercised in Italy in the absence of her migrant husband» (p. 94). Shifting gender roles, it is clear, constituted a major site of concern for the letter writers.

The third theme Cancian locates in the letters is the profound connection between parents and children and between those in love. Emotions appear in the letters in relation to expressions of love and nostalgia, dependency, imagination, ideas about time and space, efforts to bridge distances, and the impact of being left behind. Individual letters, Cancian demonstrates, often incorporated a mixture of divergent feelings. Her focus on relationships forms a particularly innovative aspect of the book: the emotions of migration have not received much attention; similarly, the role of love letters in migration has not previously been examined. In the end, Cancian concludes that both those who went and those who stayed experienced similar yearnings and passions.

At a closer look into the author’s specific choices for the presentation of the book’s material, there are two areas where one might wish for more from Cancian. Her reasons for using pseudonyms and the decisions involved in creating them obviously have implications, but without more information those implications are difficult to assess. Changing names involves making choices. Cancian notes, for example, that the names she uses for married women «[…] reflect pseudonyms acquired at birth, rather than names acquired at marriage» (p. 158, n. 26). Translation, like the use of pseudonyms, also involves making choices that have ramifications. From time to time Cancian includes the original Italian phrase in a translated letter, as in the example: «Don’t forget that a good housewife [una brava donna di casa] must know how to face unfavourable circumstances» (p. 78). Still, a discussion of the issues she faced and the practices she adopted in her translations would be valuable information for readers as they consider her arguments.

These observations notwithstanding, Families, Lovers, and their Lettersmakes for engaging reading. It will obviously be relevant to scholars interested in Canadian history or Italian history, and to those studying family, migration, gender, emotions, and letters. In addition, since there are strong parallels between the rupture of migration and the rupture of war, the book will inform those whose focus is the social history of war. Students will find the book very accessible, have much to learn from its methodology, and have much to say from their own knowledge about its central themes – the operation of kinship networks, appropriate gender roles, and the power of emotions. Most importantly, this text is essential reading for scholars who see the motivations and decisions of ordinary individuals and their families as an essential element in explaining the past.

Helen Brown (Vancouver Island University)

 

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