When Italy Book Tours asked me to review this new book by Teresa Neumann, I volunteered right away. It had all the attributes of a GREAT book! Bianca’s Vineyard did not disappoint! And what makes it even more interesting is that it is based on a true story. Taking place at the beginning of the 20th century and spanning through World War II and a bit beyond, it described the hardships of life in Italy during the difficult war years as well the difficulties of immigrating to a whole new world! This book hit close to home because my parents and grandparents immigrated here as well, and I am always enthralled by these stories.
Egisto Bertozzi, the youngest of 3 brothers, was expected to immigrate to the United States so that he could earn money and send it back to Italy. Moving he did, but before he did, he was expected to marry and bring an Italian wife with him. He was in love with Marietta and she was to be his wife. But, Egisto wasn’t religious and refused to marry in church. Marietta’s family forbade their daughter to marry outside the Church and therefore broke up the loving couple. Heartbroken, but desperate to find a wife, he married a beautiful poor girl, Arilda, from his town whom he didn’t know at all. Arilda was looking for an escape from her miserable life and thought that this would be just the perfect opportunity to make a change for the better. At first they were happy in their new home, but soon, things started to become difficult for Arilda and she became depressed. Egisto suffered for his wife and tried to make things work out for their sake as well as their children’s. Arilda ended up leaving them and moving back to Italy right before the start of World War II.
The story goes on to describe how difficult life became in Italy during this time. Hunger and fear swept the country, and the citizens of Italy were desperate. Egisto tried his hardest to help his family in Italy, but even that was hard. There were times when he didn’t even know the fate of his family. My parents, who lived along the shores of Lago Maggiore, have described to me what life was like during World War II in Italy, but their tales were nothing compared to the hardships endured in other parts of Italy, especially Tuscany. The Nazi’s, Fascists and Partisans waged war against each other and anyone else who didn’t support their cause. Many innocent people lost their lives and fear was rampant. It must have been such a horrible time in this idyllic country. It’s hard to believe that such beautiful places endured such atrocities, but I know they did from this book as well as lots of other movies and stories I’ve read about life in Italy during the war.
The story starts off in the present when Egisto’s grandchildren visit Italy to learn about their history and see the family homestead. There they meet Bianca, Egisto’s niece, who is now an elderly woman and who inherited the family vineyard. She tells them their family’s story so that they may know the strong and proud lineage that they come from.
Connections to the homeland are so important to really understand one’s self and realize the sacrifices that were made to improve dire situations. I’ve always said that it takes a very strong person to leave everything they’ve known all their lives, move to a country where they don’t know the language nor have any family, and forge a new life. My parents did it and I am so proud of their inner strength.
Interview with Teresa Neumann:
Did you ever know Egisto Bertozzi personally?
Yes. He was amazing; suave but simple, smart but humble. Oliver Towne of the St. Paul Pioneer Press once wrote that “Egisto Bertozzi was part of the creativity of our civilization.” It was truly an honor to have known him.
What inspired you to write Bianca’s Vineyard?
First my husband. One of the things I found fascinating about David, when I met him was that he was half-Italian, which meant he possessed an unusual amount self-confidence along with generous amounts of artistic creativity and scientific savvy. Throw in a unique zest for life, and I realized I’d discovered a “Renaissance man” much like my husband’s grandfather, highly acclaimed sculptor Egisto Bertozzi, the co-main character in my book. My love-affair with Italy had begun.
My mother-in-law, Violenza (Babe)Bertozzi Neumann, was an incredible blessing. So when I learned that after immigrating to the U.S., Egisto’s wife Armida had a mental breakdown, abandoned her family, moved back to Italy, found a job as a domestic to a “high-level fascist leader” and then disappeared during WWII – only to be found years later, her death a mega-mystery – well, who could resist that challenge?!
Your book is set primarily Italy. Have you been there?
In the last 15 years, many times. Egisto was a sculptor, born and raised in Tuscany, near Lucca. He studied at the famous art school in nearby Pietrasanta. Just before WWI broke out, he and Armida secretly married and immigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota, where their two children were born. Later, after WWII, Egisto took Violenza (my mother-in-law) to meet his family and spend the summer in Italy. Until his death decades later, Egisto’s family corresponded with him. Then all letters from Italy abruptly stopped. It wasn’t until much later, after years of research, that we found out why.
Fast forward to 2001: I received a response to a query letter from Egisto’s niece, Bianca Corrotti inviting us Tuscany to meet her and the other Bertozzi cousins. By then, my mother-in-law was in her 80’s and couldn’t travel, so we reluctantly went without her. Our hearts immediately bonded with my husband’s relatives and birthed the passion and motivation to research and write Bianca’s Vineyard.
What about Minnesota, where Egisto and Armida lived after immigrating to the U.S.?
Being as my husband and I were raised in Iowa, Minnesota was in our “back yard” so to speak. Many Bertozzi and Neumann relatives live in the “Land of Lakes,” so we’ve made numerous pilgrimages there over the years. The area is home to many of Egisto’s sculptures. We’ve particularly loved studying his sculptures at St. Paul Cathedral.
What is your next project?
In 2013, Domenico’s Table, the sequel to Bianca’s Vineyard was published. My third book, not a sequel, but with an Italian-American protagonist, is called A Year in the Company of Freaks and should be out this summer. You can read more about it, and my other books, on my website: http://www.teresaneumann.com