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Alligator Bayou Hardcover – March 10, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Grade 8 Up—Building on her extensive research conducted after reading a newspaper article about the lynching of Sicilian grocers in Tallulah, LA, in 1899, Napoli presents a moving, sobering story about an aspect of American immigration that is probably unknown to most readers. After his mother's death, 14-year-old Calogero leaves his bustling Sicilian home for the sleepy southern town to help his uncles and younger cousin run their grocery store. White customers expect to be served before blacks and make their displeasure angrily apparent when the Sicilians fail to do so. Barred from the white school and unaware that he can attend the black school, Calogero learns English from a tutor who also tries to help him comprehend Southern American behavior. The cousins meet some African American boys who take them on a terrifying alligator hunt that firmly cements their friendship. Calogero is attracted to Patricia, a African American girl, but fails to fully understand the danger behind her fear of being seen in public with him. Although he has heard his uncles' stories of the recent lynching of Sicilians in New Orleans, he is unprepared for the horrifying tragedy that befalls his family when a local white doctor kills Uncle Francesco's goats and then convinces an angry mob that the Sicilians plan to retaliate violently. Historical events are smoothly integrated with vivid everyday details, strong characterizations, and genuine-sounding dialogue. Ultimately, the author expands her themes beyond the story's specifics, encouraging readers to reconsider the motivations behind this calamity and other manifestations of racism.—Ginny Gustin, Sonoma County Library System, Santa Rosa, CA
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From Booklist

...The facts from [a] little-told chapter in American history frame Napoli’s wrenching novel about a 14-year-old Sicilian, Calogero, who joins male relatives in Tallulah after his mother’s death. Legally segregated from both whites and blacks, the Italians maintain an insular life, focused on their thriving produce business, until Calo’s secret crush on African American Patricia begins to dissolve social barriers between the two communities, even as social tensions with whites escalate into shocking violence. Through Calo’s active questioning, Napoli integrates a great deal of background history that is further explored in an extensive author’s note. Readers learn, right along with naive Calo, the draconian specifics of Jim Crow laws and the complex factors of fear and economics that fueled the South’s entrenched bigotry. A few passages do have a purposeful feel, particularly those between Calo and his tutor, but Napoli’s skillful pacing and fascinating detail combine in a gripping story that sheds cold, new light on Southern history and on the nature of racial prejudice. Grades 7-10. --Gillian Engberg

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Product Details

  • Age Range: 12 and up
  • Grade Level: 7 and up
  • Lexile Measure: 430L (What's this?)
  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (March 10, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385746547
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385746540
  • Product Dimensions: 6.9 x 1 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,043,398 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

For all information about Donna Jo Napoli (books, events, biography, awards, contact information), please go to

Customer Reviews

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By TeensReadToo on April 8, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.

Reviewed by: LadyJay
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By doc peterson VINE VOICE on August 17, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Summer reading has been hit-and-miss. _Alligator Bayou_ was a read for my summer book club, and would otherwise not be my standard fare. What a wonderful suprise, then, to enjoy it so much. Set in 1899 Louisana, the story revolves around a family of Sicilian immigrants who are attempting to live the "American dream," part of the immigration story that is so often romanticized. But this is the Deep South, just one year after the Plessy decision and in the midst of one of the nation's worst depressions in a quarter century. To boot, the Sicilians are unaware of the racial - and economic - boundaries in their adopted country. Told through the eyes of 14 year-old Calogero Scalise, Napoli does a top-notch job in showing the complexities of the Jim Crow South as well as the challenges immigrants face as they seek to make their way in America.

The book is written for younger (ages 9 - 13) readers given the complexity of the sentence structure and plot - but Napoli (a linguistics professor by trade) also shows a mastery of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) and Italian in the dialogue, and clearly - brutally - brings to light what life was like in the South at the start of the last century. What is perhaps most shocking, however, is that the story she has written here - of Sicilians not seen as "colored" (to use the term of the day) nor as "white" (thereby not granted the social status of "Americans") and the persecution they suffered is based largely on real-life events. At issue, of course, is not so much "race" as the maintenance of power (particularly economic power) by the elite. Power that was held and perpetrated by dividing the poor along "racial" lines (poor whites over poor African-Americans, poor immigrants somewhere in the middle ...
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Cynthia Hudson on August 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Coincidentally, I read this book over the weekend in which Rep. Gabriel Giffords was shot by paranoid loner Jared Loughner. The talk in the media has focused extensively on whether and to what extent the aggressive rhetoric and violent imagery employed by pundits and politicians may have contributed to Loughner's rampage. That question may never be fully answered in Loughner's case, but this book shines light on a perhaps related incident from the 1890s which shows that words do indeed have power.

In Donna Jo Napoli's fictionalized account of an actual event, 14-year-old Sicilian Calogero has been staying with his uncles and a cousin in rural Louisiana since his mother's death forced him to leave Italy. The six Italians run a grocery store and produce stand which have become the favorites of the local women, threatening the solvency of the local company stores in an area already hard hit economically. At the same time, the Italians are not accepted by the local whites as neighbors or even as equals. They don't speak English and they don't follow local customs. Local and national newspapers report that Italians are all mob members, armed and dangerous. The black community (referred to in the book as "Negroes" in keeping with the custom of the times) meanwhile, is also wary of them. With the exception of business contacts and a small handful of more enlightened locals, the Italians are profoundly isolated.

Calogero is still trying to navigate his new world when events start to escalate. Calogero finds himself smitten with a black girl his age. He and his cousin Cirone begin to make tentative friends with her and her brothers. Meanwhile, his uncles anger the locals because they wait on blacks ahead of a white man. Their goats roam the town, angering the town's doctor.
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