Alligator Bayou

Alligator Bayou

by Donna Jo Napoli


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An unforgettable  novel, based on a true story, about racism against Italian Americans in the South in 1899.
Fourteen-year-old Calogero, his uncles, and his cousins are six Sicilians living in the small town of Tallulah, Louisiana, miles from any of their countrymen. They grow vegetables and sell them at their stand and in their grocery store.
Some people welcome the immigrants; most do not. Calogero's family is caught in the middle of tensions between the black and white communities. As Calogero struggles to adapt to Tallulah, he is startled and thrilled by the danger of midnight gator hunts in the bayou and by his powerful feelings for Patricia, a sharp-witted, sweet-natured black girl. Meanwhile, every day, and every misunderstanding between the white community and the Sicilians, bring Calogero and his family closer to a terrifying, violent confrontation.
In this affecting and unforgettable novel, Donna Jo Napoli's inspired research and spare, beautiful language take the classic immigrant story to new levels of emotion and searing truth. Alligator Bayou tells a story that all Americans should know.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780553494174
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 05/11/2010
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 615,273
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.59(d)
Lexile: HL430L (what's this?)
Age Range: 12 Years

About the Author

Donna Jo Napoli is the author of many distinguished books for young readers, among them The Great God Pan, Daughter of Venice, Crazy Jack, The Magic Circle, Zel, Sirena, Breath, Bound, Stones in Water, Hush: An Irish Princess' Tale, and, most recently for Wendy Lamb Books, The King of Mulberry Street. She has a BA in mathematics and a PhD in Romance linguistics from Harvard University and has taught widely at major universities in America and abroad. She has five children and one grandson and lives in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where she is a professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College.
You can visit her on the Web at

Read an Excerpt

The night is so dark, I can barely see my hands. It's eerie. As if Cirone and I are made of nothing but air.  

That's how I used to feel back in Sicily when I'd walk in the caves near Cefalu. I was nothing, till the bats sensed me and came flapping out in a leathery clutter—thwhoosh—then my arms would wake and wave all crazy as they passed by and away into thesea breeze.  

But this flat meadow couldn't be more different from those hillside caves; this sleepy Louisiana town couldn't be more different from busy Cefalu; and I feel like a whole new person. I was a scaredy-cat boy when they pushed me onto the ship last autumn to come here. But now I work like a man. And I'm important at work, because I can speak English with the customers.  

Still, some of the old me remains. Right now I'm jittery at being out late without permission from my uncles. It was my cousin Cirone's idea. It's always his idea. We all go to bed early every night except Saturday, but he's got energy to spare. He begsme to sneak out.  

The grass is high here behind the lettuce field, but soft. It crushes underfoot, silent.  

I follow close behind Cirone. He knows lots about this place. He's been in America longer than me. He came with his big brother, Rosario, when he was only four. He's thirteen; I'm fourteen; I edge in front of him now.  

The slaughterhouse sits on the outskirts of town, at the edge of the woods. The place is lit up and we can smell the rot and hear the men inside singing as they work. Cirone heads that way.  

"Shhh," Cirone says, even though we weren't talking. "They hear Sicilian and they'll chase us off."  

I don't get why people here don't like Sicilian. Our family supplies this town, Tallulah, with the best fruits and vegetables. You'd think the sound of Sicilian would make their mouths water. Instead, we hold our tongues—or speak English if we can—in the presence of town people.  

But not everyone minds hearing Sicilian.  

That's how I met Patricia. I smile. She overheard Cirone and me as we unloaded crates, and she asked what we were speaking. She said Sicilian was pretty, like music. And she walked off singing. We've talked a half-dozen times since then. Always at the vegetable stand. I hear her voice in my head all the time. I'll be working, and there she is, in my mind, looking over my shoulder, saying something sweet.  

I miss hearing Sicilian in the streets—jokes, arguments, announcements, everything that makes up life. Here the six of us are like mice on a raft in the middle of the sea. Oh, there are two more Sicilians in Milliken's Bend, five miles away—Beppe and his son, Salvatore. To find more, though, you have to travel down south to New Orleans, over 250 miles. Thousands live there.  

I watch Cirone's shadow move farther ahead of me, out of whisper range. But here in the dark it's better to hush anyway.  

In the woods now, we wind through pines. These trees are gigantic compared to the trees back home. They crowd out the sky so I can hardly see the stars.  

In an instant Cirone is running, and I am, too. We dash for the open grass. No one's chasing us, but it feels like they are.  

"Calo, stop!" Cirone grabs me by the arm and pulls me to a halt.  

A giant cat comes out of the woods. Tawny brown sleeks his back and white flecks his head and shoulders. He glances at us and pauses as his eyes catch the light: yellow-green. He flicks the tip of his long tail and I think I might wet myself. That cat weighs more than me.  

The cat hisses low. Then he walks on toward the stench of the slaughterhouse.  

Cirone's fingers dig into my arm. "A panther," he breathes. "They stay in the forests, away from people. It's special to see one so close to town."  

"Special?" I'm shaking. In Sicily mountain wildcats don't even come up to your knees. "I can do without special. I can go the whole rest of my life without special."  

"We did good. We did really good, Calo. You're never supposed to run from them. You just stare. A panther won't attack unless you look away. If you stare right at them, they think you're going to eat them."  

I yank his arm, and we run. We don't slow down till we see our house.  

Out front we hear a man arguing with Francesco in English. Shouting. The man stomps off into the night, throwing curses over his shoulder. Cirone and I crouch off to the side. It's so dark, all we can see is the tip of Francesco's cigar, glowing red whenhe sucks on it. And he's sucking fast. Red, red, red, red. He's mad, all right.   Cirone and I sneak to the back and climb in through a window. We quick move the sacks of pinecones in our bed that were doubling for us and stash them. We dive under the sheet fully clothed.  

My heart still bangs against my rib cage. A panther. This place is full of surprises. Nasty ones.  

I have to push Cirone's feet away from my chin. Mine reach past his nose. Feet stink, especially when you don't dip them in the wash pan before sleeping. But lying head to toe is the only way we both still fit in this bed.   I turn my head to the right and listen to the noisy breathing of Rosario, Cirone's brother, in the next bed. He's thirty-seven, old enough to be Cirone's father. Rosario has a big beak of a nose and long sideburns. Cirone's nose is small like mine.  

Beyond Rosario there's Carlo, in his fifties. And in the next bed, Giuseppe, who's thirty-six. Carlo and Giuseppe are Francesco's brothers. Francesco, the youngest, is only thirty, but he's the leader. It's his nature. He sleeps in the bed closest to the door—the first to face trouble, if any comes.  

These two sets of brothers are cousins to each other. And then there's me. We're all from Cefalu, in Sicily. The men call me nephew, and Cirone calls me cousin, even though my father was just good friends with them.  

Back in Cefalu I have a younger brother, Rocco. The spitting image of me. The one person alive in the world I know for sure I'm related to. When Mamma died last summer, there we were, Rocco and me, with nobody but each other. Our father disappeared years ago. The Buzzi family next door took in Rocco, but they couldn't afford me; I eat too much. They put me on a ship to Louisiana. They said Francesco would take me in. My father paid his passage to America years before—it was time for Francesco to repay the favor.  

I miss Cefalu, with its stone and stucco buildings; I miss the glowing colors of the cathedral mosaics. I miss the sense of how small I become when I kneel in the pews. The music in the public squares. The sharp-and-sweet spongy cassata on holidays, lemony, creamy with ricotta. The purple artichoke flowers in fields that go on forever. The smell of the sea night and day, wherever you go. How close the sky is.

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Alligator Bayou 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
thewindowseatreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Since the book was young adult (closer to middle grades fiction, I would guess), the prose was basic, straightforward, and very easy to read. I could have read this in a few hours, but for some reason it just did not flow like that. Calo is a sweet boy with a heart for family and friends, but I find it difficult to believe that he could migrate to Louisiana and have lived there a little while without having an ounce of knowledge about the Civil War or the hostilities of the South at that time. He asked a lot of questions, and it seemed that these questions were prime opportunity for Napoli to lecture on prevalence of racism and hatred in this time period. Maybe these lectures would be more suitable for the younger audiences reading this book, but I think those parts were a bit overdone and dry. I did enjoy learning about how Italians fit into the racial landscape of the post-Civil War south, though, since this is not a topic that receives ample attention.Without divulging details, the end of this one was hard to swallow. If you are looking for happily ever after, keep looking! If you life coming-of-age stories involving race and social conflict (and don't mind young adult), try this one. Don't expect a sweeping storyline that'll leave you breathless, but I think you can count on learning a little bit and being decently entertained. Since I am not a teacher or parent, I cannot honestly say whether or not a middle grader or young adult would like this one. Pre-ending, I would say, "Sure, go for it," but the ending packs quite a punch!
jenniferthomp75 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Haunting tale about what happened to some Sicilian immigrants in the late 1800s in southern America.The book opened my eyes to a tragedy that I had never heard about and it did so in a moving, well-paced way.The author's note in the back has other article recommendations for further reading.Definitely recommended and would make a great discussion book in American History classes.
nbmars on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This story is based on real events in Tallulah, Louisiana in 1899. It is generally well known that the 1890¿s saw the rise of anti-black backlash in the American South. But what is not such common knowledge is that at the same time, Italian immigration to the U.S. South gave rise to extreme nativist expression, including lynchings. As a motivation for the hatred expressed against the Italians, which you will read about in the book, the characters point to two factors. One was the tendency of the Italians to treat blacks the same as whites. This practice might have given blacks "ideas" and simply was not to be tolerated. A second problem was commercial rivalry, because of fears that the Italians would siphon off jobs and income. At the time in which this story takes place, economic insecurity felt by "natives" was worse than usual: the U.S. was experiencing a severe economic depression that began with the Panic of 1893. Only in mid-1897 did recovery begin. Anger, scapegoating, stereotyping, and mob behavior characterized the hardest-hit regions of the country. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, 1665 persons died at the hands of lynch mobs.In the story, as in the actual event inspiring the book, the incident that ended in tragedy began when the Italian grocers in Tallulah served a black customer prior to waiting on a white one. Napoli is somewhat faithful to using actual historical figures as characters, but adds a 14-year-old boy, Calogero, recently arrived from Sicily, as a narrator, who comes to live with five cousins already in Tallulah. Calogero, or Calo, also acquires a love interest: a young black girl named Patricia, which helps the author illustrate the fragile scaffolding of race relations in the South at that time. Calo doesn¿t know much about the nature of racism in the U.S. prior to his arrival; the other characters are constantly educating him. Some of the information comes straightforwardly as lectures by Calo's white tutor, and some in a slightly more subtle form. For example, when Patricia¿s brothers take Calo hunting for alligator at night, he confesses to her his dislike of the gator. Patricia says to Calo:"`They¿s worse things than `gators, Calogero. At least a `gator stay in the swamp and don¿t get you by surprise. When you dealing with a `gator, you know who you dealing with.¿¿ And perhaps this also serves as the best example for one quibble I have with the book: even the "subtle" teaching moments are a little heavy-handed. The plot device of Calogero needing to learn about real life in America results in a lot of preaching about prejudice, race relations, justice (or the lack thereof) and the means of survival as an ¿other¿ in such a society. It sometimes feels more like you are in school than fully absorbed in a story.Nevertheless, once the author¿s message is across and she comes to the denouement, the pages fly by, and knock you flat with the ending.
ElizaJane on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a coming of age story of one Italian immigrant boy, Calogero, of uncertain age until the end of the book where we can figure he is about fourteen years old. It is the story of his life with his uncles and cousin, as the only Italian family in a small Louisiana town in 1899. They grow vegetables and are grocers and doing a might fine job at the business. He becomes friends with a small group of black boys and falls in love with one of their sisters, Patricia. The book is filled with their adventures, alligator hunting in the swamp, sneaking a kiss at a church picnic and a meeting with a very old Indian way out in the swamps.But this story is also set against a very disturbing time in American history. One in which I knew nothing about. The discrimination against Italian immigrants in the south. This was the time of Jim Crow laws which were set up to make sure that the whites had superiority over the blacks but also left certain immigrant groups in a no man's land. The Italians in the south were not considered white and were not welcome where white society was. They were also given a tough time because economically they were taking business away from the white company stores. On the other hand, Italians were neither considered to be black and an Italian was sure to get himself beat up at the least or lynched at the most for fraternizing with the blacks; the whites certainly didn't want the Italians giving the blacks any high and mighty ideas. The Italians were also denied an education at this time as they were not allowed in the white schools and the blacks had their schools in their churches, Protestant, and the Italians were Catholic and therefore chose to go without for the time being. It was within this climate that our main character, Calogero, finds himself.Based on a true story of which little but the barest of facts are known, Ms. Napoli has brought to life a terribly tragic story and a pocket of time back to the future so that we may not forget the hardships and the abuses that went on not so long ago. A beautifully written story with searing truthfulness. The characters are wonderful and the end is too sad to comprehend. This is a quick little read but it's packed with a lot of punch.
DCHAT on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a very good one. It explores the life of Calegro with such intensity that you cannot put the book down. He struggles with the Jim Crow laws and his uncles. His life is very hard and you will see how hard it was when Jim Crow laws were active.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mother-Daughter-Book-Club More than 1 year ago
Calogero is a 14-year-old immigrant to Louisiana from Sicily, and he lives in the small town of Tallulah where his cousins and uncles sell groceries and produce. The year is 1899, and the small band of Sicilians find the constraints that won't let them mingle with whites because their skin is dark also keeps them from socializing with blacks. Calogero and his 13-year-old cousin Cirone are lonely and want to fit in: they work to learn English, eat American food and try to learn the customs of their new country. But tight economic times lead to tension between the white Louisianans and the Sicilians, who the whites see as taking business away from them. When Calogero and his relatives become friends with blacks, tensions escalate. Based on a true event, Alligator Bayou by Donna Jo Napoli brings this powerful clash of cultures to life with tales of alligator hunts in the bayou, Italian immigrant communities, picking cotton, selling watermelons, cooking sweet potatoes and eating alligator. This tale reminds us that the immigrant story in the U.S., like the story between whites and blacks, was and is often wrought with difficulties. The story was particularly poignant for me, because I grew up in Louisiana amongst many long-established Italians, and I had no idea of the hardships many of their ancestors endured so their descendents could one day become part of the accepted American community. Napoli understands the time period she writes of well, and there are references to the all-but-gone Tunica tribe of Mississippi and Louisiana and the 1890 U.S. Census, in which some blacks found out for the first time they were free from slavery. It's truly amazing to look back on the time and issues that dominated the day: Jim Crow laws, the relationship between whites and blacks, and the threat immigrants posed to the normal routine of life.
TeensReadToo More than 1 year ago
It is the year 1899. Calogero, a 14-year-old Sicilian immigrant, lives in Tallulah, Louisiana, with his uncles and cousins. They have all come to America seeking a better life. They do well for themselves, selling fruits and vegetables from a corner grocery store. They do not seek out trouble, but it always has a way of finding them. Calo and his family do not discriminate between blacks and whites. They sell to anyone who will buy their produce. Members of the town find this behavior reprehensible and disgusting. It is only a matter of time before the white citizens of Tallulah turn their backs on Calo and his family, and destroy every possible hope they had of leading quiet, normal lives. Donna Jo Napoli has done extensive research for this novel. The afterword explains that Napoli came across an article about five Sicilian grocers in Tallulah, Louisiana, who were lynched because they served a black customer before a white one. The article moved Napoli, and she felt a story must be told about these men. Napoli based her characters on those people who testified or were talked about in the testaments taken after the Tallulah lynching. The time and effort Napoli has put into her research makes the story more genuine, more affecting. It is a tragic story that ends with a glimmer of hope. Read this novel - it is a horrific reminder of what can happen when prejudice prevails and mob mentality rules over all.