Southern Hospitality

Southern Hospitality

I have to admit that I’m kind of happy to be leaving the Northeast, if only for this brief stop in the South.   The South produces great literature, right?  I’m ready to find out — beginning with Georgia.

Photograph by Walter Bibikow/Getty Images - National Geographic

Photograph by Walter Bibikow/Getty Images – National Geographic

Usually, when moving to a new state, I check out a map, look for a place that seems geographically interesting, and go from there.  I’m not necessarily interested in the biggest city in that state — I’m looking for a place with character.  For Georgia, someone recommended Savannah to me, selling it as a beautiful spot, so I start by researching independent bookstores there.  At first, I’m draw to a bookstore that looks like it’s in an historic part of town, but when I start reading the Yelp reviews, more than one person remarks about the poor customer service, so I move along.  Now I find The Book Lady Bookstore which, according to its website has been around since 1978, is in a hundred year old building and is jam-packed with books.  Their About page tells me that they have a knowledgeable (opinionated!) staff.  Perfect.  I make the call. Continue reading

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Jernigan, by David Gates

JerniganThe protagonist in David Gates’ novel, Peter Jernigan, is a mess.  As the novel opens, he’s been up all night driving through the New Jersey snow.  The sun is up and blinding now as he makes his way to Uncle Fred’s camp.  He longs to get the car off the road, feed lots of wood into the stove to warm up the cabin then drink what’s left of the gin in the bottle on the seat next to him, washing down four Pamprins with it and sleep the sleep of the just.  We know he gets into the cabin and anticipates cutting some wood and getting warm.  Chapter Two opens with Jernigan reflecting that he has Uncle Fred to thank for getting him into this placeAnd for calling the state police, who carried me out of the trailer and rushed me to the hospital.    But he doesn’t remember any of that and, horribly, he says, They got there too late for my thumb and forefinger — the surgeon almost had to do (meaning cut off) the whole hand — but the essential man, was, and is, still intact.  Which is the big thing, right, the essential man? Jernigan.  And, of course, we wonder, who is this guy? How did he end up here?  Who’s Uncle Fred?  Turns out Uncle Fred is not anyone’s uncle, just a friend of Jernigan’s from college who got the nickname Uncle Fred because he looked like some kid’s uncle. 

The book is written in a casual, tossed-off kind of way which I found particularly jarring when Jernigan’s story gets pretty serious, and then seriously dire.  Turns out Jernigan is the master of the off-hand comment, a clever literary device that keeps me wondering and guessing throughout the novel.  And Jernigan is written in a self-consciousness style.  Often, in Dickensian fashion, he talks directly to the reader.  Like when he veers off the main story and into a vignette about Judith and we’re wondering who’s Judith? though we understand that Jernigan’s had a relationship with her and that she didn’t understand him as well as Uncle Fred always has.  After the vignette, he says, But we’re jumping all around here and losing track.  Not that I mind losing track, far from it.  But.  Okay, I easily fall into the style.  And at the end of Chapter Two, when Jernigan says, End of reminiscence, I’m ready for the real story.  Except not.  Because the real story is how Jernigan got into this mess — injured and off by himself in a musty-smelling shithole of a trailer.  He tosses off a kind of a prayer, asking forgiveness from his son for being a drunk and for knowing he’s probably not capable of doing better, since he has failed at least once before at getting sober. Continue reading

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American Pastoral

AmericanPastoralAmerican Pastoral begins with a vignette from the narrator, Nathan “Skip” Zuckerman’s, youth.  It’s a story about another kid in their Jewish neighborhood in Newark, Seymour Levov, nicknamed “The Swede.”  The point is that Swede was no ordinary Jew,  he was blonde and blue-eyed, beautiful and athletic, the All-American Adonis who transcended the Jewish experience.  He was kind and unassuming, seemingly perfect and loved by everyone, adults and his peers alike.  Flash forward and the narrator is at his high school reunion, remembering the past through the filter of nostalgia.  The story jumps back and forth in time — from the reunion in the 1990’s, to the pre-World War II Newark — a center for manufacturing in the Northeast, filled with second generation Jewish immigrants working hard to succeed — to the period of post-war enthusiasm and prosperity, through the devastation of the Vietnam war.  The history is told through the lens of Skip Zuckerman, but it is the life of Swede Levov, the Golden Boy.  And what a life he’s had.  He enlists in the Marines but spends most of his military career as a recreational specialist in South Carolina since the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima just after he finished basic training.  He leaves the military, goes to college and takes a job in his father’s glove factory.  Later he marries “a shiksa,”  Miss New Jersey of 1949, no less.  From all outward appearances, The Swede continues to lead a charmed life.

Zuckerman runs into the Swede a couple of times over the years, but as an adult the Swede appears to have  “ended up bland .”   What could have happened to turn the Swede into “a human platitude?”  Of course, once he discovers the real story of the Swede’s life, Zuckerman says, it has been a little bit like Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych, most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.  The narrator is obsessed with the Swede’s life, wondering whether anything “had ever threatened to destabilize the Swede’s trajectory?  What brooding, grief, confusion and loss had come his way in life?”

This is the setup for the real story, the story of Swede Levov’s life, which the narrator has imagined — from golden boy to broken man.  The Swede’s daughter, Merry, it turns out,

New York Times Photo Archives - Patrick A. Burns

New York Times Photo Archives – Patrick A. Burns

was a Vietnam war activist who bombed the post office in their small New Jersey town, killing the local doctor and sending her into hiding.  With this act of violence, Merry destroys the Levov family’s unbearably idyllic life.  A major theme that interests Roth in this novel is parent-child relationships.  Parents must do everything they can to help their children succeed.  It is impossible for a parent to give up on a child, to believe the unthinkable about a child, to confront the evil which is “ineradicable from human dealings.”  Even though Swede Levov had a second chance, a second wife, three normal, healthy children, he had experienced “the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense.”  He can never really be happy again.  Merry’s violent act “transport[ed] him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence and the desperation of the counter-pastoral — into the indigenous American berserk.” 

American Pastoral is pretty grim, though there are bits of Roth’s sharp humor throughout.  And the setting of Newark is equally grim — a place changed from a manufacturing hub to “the worst city in the world,” abandoned now that everyone has moved to the suburbs.  Newark-manufacturingWhile Newark used to have “a factory where somebody was making something in every side street.  Now there’s a liquor store in every street — a liquor store, a pizza stand, and a seedy storefront church.  Everything else in ruins or boarded up. ”  Even Swede Levov had to move his glove factory to Puerto Rico, after holding out as long as possible through the riots of the sixties.  His loyalty alone — to his employees and to the neighborhood –cannot hold back the tide of urban decay.

I’d say I got a good sense of a narrow slice of the New Jersey Jewish experience from the 1940’s through the 1990’s by reading American Pastoral.  Through the story of Swede Levov, Roth handily demolishes the myth of the American dream.  The notion of creatingModernNewJersey some kind of perfect life in the bucolic suburbs where one can hide from the reality of life and the desperation of poverty and war is absurd.  Especially for Jews.  It is Roth’s tour de force about “the ritual post-immigrant struggle for success turning pathological.”

Is American Pastoral the quintessential New Jersey novel?  It definitely has that element described by Rutgers Professor Michael Aaron Rockland — characters trying to find a center, looking for meaning in their lives while living in a “never never land” of rural New Jersey and pretending to be living on a farm.  Levov’s wife actually buys cows and runs a successful dairy farm for a time.  Yes, this book has given me a fairly Dickensian feel for Newark at the end of the twentieth century.  And I’m glad to be moving on to Jernigan, wondering about the kind of New Jersey David Gates has presented there.

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On to New Jersey



I’m kind of reluctant to leave Pennsylvania, the rolling hills and beautiful, though coal mining damaged countryside to head off to New Jersey.  New Jersey?  Yeah, I have all sorts of preconceived notions about New Jersey even though I’m most familiar with the airport, having flown to New York via New Jersey from Seattle several times over the years — there’s a nonstop.  New Jersey immediately conjures up images of mobsters, a notorious Mafia hang out. No surprise that The Sopranos was set in New Jersey.  Also, Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of New Jersey, right?  But I haven’t watched those so that’s no help.  I also know that Martha Stewart went to High School in Nutley, New Jersey, thanks to my good friend Robin who went there too — though years later than Martha so their paths never crossed.  Of course, these random facts don’t really give me a handle on what it would be like to live in New Jersey or what it’s like as a place.

My research into independent bookstores in New Jersey leads me to Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey.  I’m drawn to Watchung because the bookstore’s website tells me that Montclair is “a town that really values the word,” and the store owner’s comment



that she estimates sixty authors live there. Perfect.  Someone at Watchung will definitely be able to recommend a New Jersey novel for me.  I call them up and speak with someone who seems perplexed by my request — a novel that takes place in New Jersey, one that would give me a sense of New Jersey as a distinct place.  Philip Roth is the first author who pops into her head but she asks if she can call me back, wants to think about it.  I’m good with that.  In fact, I figure she’s really taking me seriously.  When she calls me back, she’s come up with  a book called something like “Legends of New Jersey” which doesn’t appeal to me — mostly because it’s not a novel.  She then suggests that I do an internet search to find a book I might like.  “That’s what I would do,” she tells me.  Now I’m disappointed because I’m really counting on the expertise of independent booksellers to make recommendations for this project.  So I decide to get American Pastoral by Philip Roth and then take her advice and do some online research about a more current author who has written about New Jersey.

My search leads to me an essay by Bill Morris in an online literary magazine called, The Millions, titled, “Who Wrote the Great New Jersey Novel?”  Find it here:   In welcome-to-new-jersey-signit, Morris says, “New Jersey’s lack of defining character traits —  it’s facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness —  make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic — more soulless — by the day. . . . In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey.”  Oh, he’s wonderfully cynical and I can’t wait to read his list of nominees for the great New Jersey novel.  But first, he asks, “what, beyond a New Jersey setting, makes a novel a New Jersey Novel?  He then quotes several writers on this subject.  Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor at Rutgers who teaches a class in “Jerseyana” (really?) says that the whole notion of New Jersey is that “we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we’re living on a farm.  The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere.. . . what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives.”  Another author who grew up in New Jersey says, ” New Jerseyness is a kind of vagueness.  It’s peculiarly indeterminate.”  And this makes me think about my interaction with the bookseller at Watchung.  She seemed unable to recommend a book that exemplifies New Jersey, maybe because it’s so hard to put your finger on this place.  It’s fuzzy, mercurial.  Is it a suburb of Manhattan or a distinct place with character all its own?

I scroll through the list of New Jersey novels offered by Bill Morris and find that I haveRichardFordBooks read many of them but have somehow missed that they were set in New Jersey.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  I love Richard Ford and eagerly read my way through the Frank Bascombe trilogy, one after the other and loved them all.  But I agree with Morris, who says the thing about these novels is that they’re all about what goes on inside Frank’s head.  Since Frank is a failed novelist who turns to sportswriting and then to selling real estate, he, like his home state is the “poster boy for the uncelebrated.”  He offers this quote from Frank as one of the most left-handed compliments any state ever received:  “Better to come to earth in New Jersey than not to come at all.”

Philip Roth is on the list, American Pastoral, specifically.  So I decide to start my New Jersey reading here and also order up Morris’s favorite Jersey novel, Jernigan, by David Gates from Watchung Booksellers, as my second source since I’ve found that reading two novels set in a state gives me the sense of continuity and departure that I need to form a deeper understanding of the place.

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Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell

BackRoads2Back Roads by Tawni O’Dell is the story of a twenty- year-old young man, Harley Altmyer, who, on page one, is questioned by the local sheriff for the brutal murder of a woman.  From the looks of it, Harley is plenty guilty.  His hands are full of dried blood, the color of a dead rose and, while he claims innocence, he can’t stop talking about how the mining office where he and the dead woman were found is a favorite hideout of his, where he liked to come with his friend Skip, now off at college.  Harley rambles on about how he and Skip used to try to kill Skip’s little brother, but not seriously.  The only time they actually came close to hurting Donny by luring him to sit directly underneath the automatic garage door while they press the button to lower it, Harley pulled him to safety at the last minute.  Harley somehow naively believes that these stories he can’t seem to shut up about may help convince the sheriffs questioning him that he is not a murderer.

And Harley is no stranger to trouble.  He knows the sheriff because he’s the same man who investigated his father’s murder, when his father was shot in the back by his mother two years before the novel opens.  Wow, this is some dysfunctional family.  Since his mother has been in prison, Harley has been working two jobs, delivering appliances by day and working at the local grocery store at night to support his three sisters, ranging in age from eight to sixteen.  And he’s not happy about it.  Harley is consumed with rage over his situation.  He can barely keep his anger in check while going through the motions of caring for his sisters.  While he sometimes keeps his regular appointment with the court-appointed psychologist, he’s very careful about what he tells her about his feelings.  He can tell when she has tricked him into saying something important because she gives him a look, like I was suddenly naked and surprisingly well-hung.  Yes, Harley is angry and in trouble, but funny too.  I am completely on his side from page one. Continue reading

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Appointment In Samara, by John O’Hara

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI loved reading this book!  And, too, I see immediately why Jeff Wood of the Whistlestop Bookshop has recommended it to me.  I get the comparison to Gatsby and why, for my purposes, it’s better than Gatsby, in the way that it plunks me down not just in the clubby world of the wealthy set in the thirties, but the way in which it tells me more about the place where those characters live.  In Gibbsville, Pennsylvania which is, according to the introduction by Charles McGrath, a lightly disguised version of Pottsville (where the author grew up) the economy is based on coal.  Anyone in Gibbsville who had any important money made it in coal; anthracite.  And O’Hara explains the difference between bituminous and soft or anthracite coal mining (which is the Gibbsville kind) and how in around 1925, anthracite mining declined as the labor unions gained strength and oil was introduced as a viable heating fuel.  The way of life was changing in Gibbsville as the book opens.coalminenearPottsville

Mostly, the story is told through the point of view of the protagonist, Julian English.  But parts are told from Julian’s wife, Caroline’s point of view and from Julian’s co-worker, the Pennsylvania Dutch middle-class car salesman, Lute Fliegler’s.  Very occasionally, we get the point of view of the liquor-running small town gang flunky, Al Grecco, who chooses the gang life over the coal mine because, “That kind of work was hard work.”   Different points of view here allow a fuller picture of the various kinds of lives humming along side of the rarefied life of the rich than, say, Nick Carroway’s view in Gatsby.

1930 CadillacJulian English, a wealthy member of the country club set, the son of a doctor and owner of the Cadillac dealership in town, has understood his place in the social structure of Gibbsville from his birth.  In Gibbsville, the social hierarchy is strictly stratified — the wealthy ivy-league crowd on top and the Pennsylvania Dutch hard-working middle class below.  The other residents, Irish Catholics and anyone who is Jewish are lower still and face the blatant prejudices of the day.  Catholics are tolerated if they have been able to make money in coal or the railroads, but Jews continue to face vicious discrimination.

The arc of the story takes place over just a couple of days, Christmas and the day after.  Those days are filled with lavish country club parties, major league bouts of drinking and our man Julian behaving  badly.  After he throws a drink into the face of a man he detests at the country club, it’s all downhill.  The next day, Christmas day, he tries to apologize and do the right thing, but once he starts to slide, like one of his Cadillacs over the wintry snowy-highwaystreets of Gibbsville, he’s out of control, destined to crash.  In a scotch-fuelled two-day binge, Julian’s bad behavior intensifies.  He fights with his best friends, is unfaithful to his wife and cannot find a way back to the safety of his wealth and privilege.

Throughout the novel, we follow Julian’s inner struggle.  He’s lost, really, searching for meaning in a life which, in the final analysis, is shallow.  On the afternoon of Christmas Day, Julian leaves the country club in a hurry.  The car jumped out of the snow and Julian drove as fast as he could to the quickest way out of Gibbsville.   But we know, even before he turns the car around and heads back, that he cannot escape.   Like the parable Death Speaks by Somerset Maugham quoted in the beginning of this novel, there is no other way out for Julian:  whatever it was he was going back to and whatever it was, he had to face it.  In facing it, in beginning to examine that life, he must put an end to it.

Appointment in Samara is a rip-roaring high speed race through a particular time and place worth knowing and reading about.  I recommend it.

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Onward to Pennsylvania

pennsylvaniaMapThis time, in researching independent bookstores in Pennsylvania, I decide to look outside of the big cities because the bookstores in Philadelphia remind me of bookstores in Seattle.  There’s the college bookstore, a couple of big bookstores, the LGBT bookstore, an artsy bookstore and some used bookstores.  I’m sure they’re all great but I think I need to cast a wider net.  Pennsylvania is vast.  Maybe I need a rural or small town perspective.  I log onto the internet and find Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  I’m not sure why it appeals to me.  The website is not very fancy. But I love their philosophy, The objective of our business is to put the right books in the hands of the right people. This is clearly the place for me!  I’m also drawn to the bios of the booksellers.  There are so many of them and they all sound like people I’d like to meet.  Of course, Carlisle is a college town.  I imagine it filled with bookish students and professors.  Whistlestop originally opened in 1985 in Gettysburg, with a second shop in Carlisle a few years later.  After nineteen years, the Gettysburg shop closed and moved to Carlisle.  Find it here:

whistlestopBooks Continue reading

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All This Talk of Love – Leaving Delaware

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’m not sorry that I took the time to read Christopher Castellani’s most recent novel before moving on to Pennsylvania.  In fact, I think I like this novel even more than I liked its predecessor. In All This Talk of Love, Antonio and Maddalena are in their seventies and their two surviving children are adults.  We learn early on that their eldest son, Tony, died as a teenager. Their youngest son, Frankie, is a graduate student, another lost soul searching for an academic life and interpersonal relationships that make sense.  Their daughter Prima, their first-born and a baby at the end of The Saint of Lost Things is the mother of three teenage sons, the last of which is about to go off to college.  For Prima, the empty nest is a frightening place.  She has always been close to her sons, a little too close probably.  Coupled with that, she sees her parents beginning to fail physically and mentally.  It’s her idea to take the entire family back to St. Cecelia, their ancestral village, for the trip of a lifetime.

But things happen throughout the novel which postpone the trip.  At first, Maddalena refuses to go, she has only her memories of St. Cecelia and doesn’t want to face how the place and the people have changed.  Frankie sides with his mother.  Then, there is an accident.  When the trip finally happens, it’s different from everyone’s original expectation, and meaningful to each of them individually for very different reasons. Continue reading

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Delaware, Part Two – Christopher Castellani

Christopher CastellaniChristopher Castellani wins!  Okay, this blog isn’t meant to be a beauty contest for writers. That said, Castellani is my pick for Mr. Delaware.  Castellani has written a trilogy about an Italian Immigrant family, the Grassos, which begins and ends in St. Cecelia, a small village in Italy where the novel’s main characters, Maddalena and Antonio, meet and marry.

Because I believe that his latest book takes place in Italy and I’m looking to discover what life is like in Delaware, I begin reading the trilogy in the middle with The Saint of Lost Things.  In this novel, set in the fifties in Wilmington, the Grassos are just starting out, searching for their American OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADream.  Antonio works on an assembly line at the Ford Motor Company while Maddalena rides the bus to a factory in Philadelphia where she bends over a sewing machine all day.  Any extra money they make gets sewn into a special pocket Maddalena has fashioned into the cornice of the drapes.  The Grassos live with Antonio’s family in the Italian neighborhood in Wilmington, a tight-knit community, ten square blocks with the Catholic church, St. Anthony’s, at the center.  The church, the houses of other families and Italian restaurants are all places where they gather on Sundays and for every important family event.  For Christmas Eve festivities, the women begin preparing food a week in advance, they make twelve pounds of pasta and seven different kinds of fish, delicate sauces and sweets galore.  These gatherings are filled with the kind of big emotions that come with big families – passion, jealousy and love, so much love.     Continue reading

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Reading Delaware

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the first book of this project, The House on Teacher’s Lane by Rachel Simon, shows up in my mailbox, I can’t wait to start reading.  But first, I do what I always do — check out the cover, a nice photo of an old row house on a leafy street. Then I read the blurb — sounds good, promises to be “life affirming.”  Inside the cover I find lots of quotes about the author’s previous book.  It seems like that book, Riding the Bus with my Sister, about Simon’s relationship with her developmentally disabled sister was a bestseller and adapted as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie.  A hard act to follow.

The House on Teacher’s Lane is a story about love and OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfamily relationships set within the framework of rehabbing a hundred year old row house in the small city of Wilmington, Delaware.  I read chapter one and think, Yes!  This is just what I was hoping for.  I discover that the author’s neighborhood, “sandwiched between downtown office towers at the hill’s peak and a genteel park at the hill’s bottom”  is a real community where neighborly gatherings are common and people care about each other.  It’s a place where you can walk to do errands or down to the park across a nineteenth century stucco bridge and along a cobblestone road.  Walking along the Brandywine Parkway toward the river, you might even spot a great blue heron.  Simon and her husband see one all the time.  They’ve named him Edward.  There’s a zoo and a major hospital and it’s close to the interstate, but quiet.  It seems lovely.

Row Houses-WilmingtonThe house itself has a terra cotta porch, a heavy oak front door, hardwood floors, plaster walls and working transom windows.  Just before the project begins, Simon and her husband share a moment holding hands and looking out at the street from the third floor music room.  She says, It seemed as if we were in a glass ship sailing down a river of row houses and trees, embarking on a voyage that transcended our failed past.  I can picture the majestic sycamores which line the street and drape one set of windows while the sunlight streams in.  I think about their failed past.  Simon and her husband, Hal, have only been married a few years after having an on again, off again relationship for nineteen years. Nineteen! It seems she couldn’t commit and didn’t recognize all of Hal’s great qualities until she spent time away from him.  But now they’re back together and living their happily ever after.

Near the end of chapter one, Simon muses:  “Is it possible that I’m beginning to see less of what isn’t and more of what is?”  And herein lies the rub.  Simon seems a bit of a whiner.  She does seem to always comment on what isn’t — what’s lacking in relationships with her husband and her family, what’s lacking in the old house.  The concept here is that against the backdrop of the construction project, Simon works on her relationships in the same way her husband works on their remodel.  But I don’t think these two ideas echo each Image-Delawareother in a convincing way in this memoir.  And, for my purposes, I’m looking for a book that gives me a real sense of Delaware as a place.  Early on, Simon notes that while Hal thinks in terms of things you can see or hear . . . my conversation seldom strayed from emotions and memory and relationships and the meaning of life.”  Alas, this is also true.  Only in chapter one do I get a sense of what makes Wilmington unique.  The rest of the book could be happening in Anywhere, U.S.A.  There is some lovely writing here, and Simon has some useful things to say about relationships and what it takes to keep them viable, but the memoir lacks what I am looking for and this worries me.

Brandywine Parkway DE

I realize that in my first attempt to explain exactly what I’m after in my quest to read a book about each state, I have not made myself clear.  After all, I’m just beginning this journey, trying to figure it out while I dive right in, or drive right through.  But wait.  The bookseller at Ninth Street Book Shop mentioned another Delaware writer first, Christopher Castellani.  I should look him up!  Even though his latest novel takes place in Italy, the earlier ones in this family trilogy are set in Wilmington.  But they might be out of print.  I log on to the Seattle Public Library catalog.  Turns out that the second in the trilogy, The Saint of Lost Things, the story of an Italian couple who move to Wilmington to start a new life in the 1950’s, is available so I order it up with my fingers crossed.

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