Lynne Bowen, Whoever Gives Us Bread: The Story of Italians in British Co-lumbia

Vancouver and Toronto, Douglas & McIntyre, 2011, pp. 372, $ 32.95.

Bowen’s book provides a fascinating portrait of the Italian presence in Canada’s western province, British Columbia, from the 1860s to the present day. Italian families’ life stories are at the epicentre of large historical events, dating from the period of Italy’s Risorgimento up to the current years. For Bowen, evidence of Italians cropping up «in every corner of the province» (p. 12) calls for the need to give a name to the nameless, and carefully recount their histories. A writer of public history, Bowen passionately offers a sweeping historical account of the Italian men and women who settled in cities and towns across the province’s vast geographies, including Victoria – hosting the highest concentration of Italians in the late 1800s (p. 41) –, Nanaimo, Vancouver, Powell River, Prince Rupert, and the Okanagan and Elk River Valleys. The book is intended for a general audience, and its style, approach, and language make it especially accessible. The volume’s large brushstrokes in constructing a social history of the Italian presence in British Columbia – «which has the third largest number of people of Italian origin in Canada» (p. 8) – combined with a micro-historical approach in detailing individual family stories unfolding within large processes of mobility contribute to filling a much-needed void in the history of Italian migration to British Columbia. Bowen’s book is a fine work that complements the studies of Gabriele P. Scardellato, Patricia K. Wood, and other historians. By following an approach that is both chronological and thematic, Bowen deftly pieces together personal narratives and historical events through the use of primary sources located in public and private archives, government records, correspondence, newspapers and oral interviews – some of which she conducted herself in both Italy and Canada over the course of writing the book.

Whoever Gives Us Bread begins with a prologue that sheds light on the author’s motivation for writing such an ambitious work. Bowen notes «I wanted my book about Italian immigrants to be connected to my home province of British Columbia» (p. 7). During Bowen’s ten years of researching the volume, she travelled between British Columbia and Italy seven times, driving the peninsula’s width and length, seeking out villages and towns whose citizens emigrated to British Columbia (p. 7). Indeed, connections between Italians in British Columbia and Italians in Italy regularly appear in her work. One case in point is evidenced in the first chapter where we learn of Felice Valle, an Italian immigrant who travelled by mule train to transport goods between British Columbia’s interior in the Fraser Canyon and Barkerville, 640 km to the north (p. 13). Valle began his life in Liguria where mules «were essential for travel and commerce in all of Liguria, a region so steep that a person could not build a house […]. Rough mortar held the rocks together» (p. 12). For fourteen years his wife, who had remained in the town of Chiavari (in the province of Genoa), did not receive news from him after his departure in 1858. Indeed, as Bowen remarks, «Maria Valle was not the first Chiavarian to suffer at the hands of circumstance. The inhabitants of the Chiavari area had been confronting adversity for centuries» (p. 13). In this family, the adversity would ultimately be long-term separation and death away from home. Finally, Felice sent word that he planned to return home in 1872. Unfortunately, it would not be so. On May the 5th, 1874 he «dropped dead among his mules at Alkali Lake» (p. 31). His wife’s latest letter was found tucked inside his pocket along with his other letters and papers (p. 31). Bowen’s extensive use of migrant letters and oral histories – coupled with a vivid collection of archival images, and countless articles drawn from contemporary local newspapers – contribute much to the narrative’s historical drama, often compelling its readers to reflect in evocative ways on the intrinsic effects of migration on the women, men, and children who experienced mobility firsthand. The correspondence of Tobia Castellarin and Antonia Tomasin, for instance, underscores the ways in which an Italian migrant sought to mediate his absence at home by filling «his correspondence with his concerns for and advice to Antonia and his children» (p. 178), urging his wife to «look after the children and if you need anything, write me in time and I will not fail to help you and Mother too» (p. 178). Although Castellarin is described as a «faithful letter writer» Bowen asks what was not written in the letters, and concludes that he «did not tell his family where he was and what he was doing» (p. 178).

Italian men’s determination to succeed in their migration projects over the centuries are illustrated in the men’s participation in the gold rush, mining and mill work, labour strikes, the building of the railway and life in the camps, communist activities, work accidents, the internment of Italians during World War ii, and postwar migration. Italian women’s inventiveness to make do and benefit from their migration is captured in the stories of their work in sustaining families on both sides of the Atlantic, on the land and at home. This involved cooking, food preservation, caring for their children, and running multiple-family households that frequently included boarders. Love, marriage, separation, and divorce are integrated in the transnational lives of Bowen’s protagonists.

Surprisingly, Bowen dedicates only one chapter to the period following World War ii, the era that generated the highest number of Italian families settling in Canada. Instead, much of the book’s focus is anchored in the late nineteenth century, when a smaller number of Italian men and women arrived in British Columbia, some with the intention to earn good money and return home, others with the desire to firmly set their roots in the province. Additionally, juxtaposed with a comprehensive bibliography and index, the use of non-enumerated page-notes at the back of the book can be frustrating for the reader, leading to a frequent flipping of pages from front to back, and guessing which observation was referenced in the text.

To be sure, unlike the history of Italian migration to Toronto and Montreal – where a majority of Italians settled – there is a dearth of studies on Italian migration to British Columbia in Canadian historiography. Whoever Gives Us Bread is a welcomed ensemble of histories encompassing a plethora of Italian individuals whose ideas, circumstances, decisions, and daily lives are featured in a colourful quilt of individual stories in a place that thousands of Italians came to call home. Ultimately, the volume serves as a springboard for more in-depth examinations of the multitude of research areas that Bowen introduces in her book.

Sonia Cancian (McGill University/Concordia University)