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Amalia's Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice Hardcover – March 6, 2008

4.7 out of 5 stars 15 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this absorbing account, Amalia Bagnacavalli's tale is a horrific one. An impoverished Italian peasant in the late 19th century, Amalia was hired as a wet nurse and contracted syphilis from the infant assigned her by a Bologna foundling home. She in turn spread the disease to her husband and their baby daughter and sons. Her plight was common, Kertzer notes, in a Europe plagued for centuries by poverty, prostitution, venereal disease and legal-religious mores that forced unwed mothers to give up their newborns to institutions where they would be nursed by strangers. But Amalia took the very modern step of suing the foundling home and its aristocratic board, helped by a young lawyer eager to impose a scientific, bureaucratically controlled regimen on an antiquated welfare system. Amalia's court victory over the Italian medical establishment was no feel-good triumph of justice: her lawyer screwed her out of every penny of the huge settlement she won, and the system of bottle-feeding prompted by her suit killed most of the foundlings subjected to it. Like Kertzer's much-praised The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, Amalia's story is a rich social history, in which new values clash with old in an Italy wracked by the fitful march of progress. (Mar. 6)
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Review

"A compelling story masterfully told." --Peter D. Kramer, author of Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind and Listening to Prozac

"David Kertzer tells [a] riveting story . . . A fascinating episode." --Natalie Zemon Davis, author of The Return of Martin Guerre
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (March 6, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0618551069
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618551064
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,414,537 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on March 14, 2008
Format: Hardcover
The sexually transmitted diseases we have now are in addition to the ones we had a century ago. Syphilis is no longer the horror that it was because of antibiotics that were first used sixty years ago, although the problem of resistance means that it may regain its status as a sexual scourge. What it will never again regain is its danger of being transmitted from infants to their wet nurses. That this was a problem was mentioned in a medical text of 1498, shortly after the disease first showed up in Europe. An infected baby suckling at a nurse's nipple could easily transmit the disease. That this was an enormous problem, now nearly completely forgotten, is made clear in _Amalia's Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice_ (Houghton Mifflin) by historian David I. Kertzer. It is also a story of a legal battle with the peasant heroine facing off against the medical establishment, helped by a crusading attorney. It is thus a surprisingly engaging legal drama, pieced together from century-old archives and fleshed out with a flare for storytelling. Kertzer may be an academic (he is provost of Brown University and a professor of anthropology and Italian studies), but he has deliberately omitted footnotes, and as in his _The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara_, he has told a gripping story of a time, land, science, and social conditions very different from our own.

Bologna's foundling home was a charitable institution run by the rich and powerful, like its president Count Francesco Isolani. There was no way to feed the infants deposited in the foundling home except by hiring wet nurses.
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Kertzer won a Pulitzer this year. He is a solid, academic writer, though I don't necessarily love how his politics influence his writing/ This non-fiction work reads like a novel. Local officials pay impoverished peasants a few lire a month to nurse the illegitimate infants in orphanages. It is just one more, poignant example of how poor people are oppressed and used for whatever they have to offer, in this instance, breast milk. Since many of the sexual encounters were casual, one-time contacts, many of the newborns contracted syphilis. Over time, this deadly STD turned into an epidemic. Help was on the way, though, in the form of an attorney who filed what today would be a class-action lawsuit. He won, but once again, the poor peasant involved was cheated out of most of the settlement money. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
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What a literary treasure. Anthropologist David I. Kertzer has created with this book a microhistory of events in the life of Amalia Bagnacavalli, a poor Italian peasant woman who contracted syphillis from nursing a foundling child from the Bologna Foundling Home. The setting of a foundling home, babies, and the wet nurses spread throughout the countryside of rural Italy who took them in and fed them seems an unlikely source for a story that forever changed social conditions for a population of down-trodden people. However, I was completely fascinated from the first page; first by the courage of Amalia to bring the suit against the rich and powerful in the first place. Second by the bravery of a young, relatively inexperienced attorney to take her case, that would twice reach the Italian Supreme Court and pit him against some of the most powerful leaders in law, medicine, and government in the process. This history involved a controversial subject and several trials that brought a series of dramatic events to light about individuals who are long dead, but have until this day affected Italian laws and social consciousness. The minute attention to archival records and the many hours, days, months, even years, of research required before the story could be put together accurately was astonishing. This is an aspect of his craft that the author finds pleasurable and exciting, as he says: " The pleasure of archival research comes not only from discovering such documents, but from handling pieces of paper that were once in the hands of the people whose thoughts and actions of long ago the historian is trying to reconstruct."
In my mind, all that research translated itself into a book that made this microhistory come alive.
Well done.
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Format: Hardcover
Having been told that my great-grandfather was born illegitimately in southern Italy, I found this book very interesting. It was evident that the author had done much research on the topic of foundlings in Italy. Much detail is included. I am always looking for books to help me understand the lives of my italian ancestry. This book filled in some of the gaps that I knew nothing about. I recommend it to lovers of Italian culture and history.
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Amalia's Tale opens a window that affords a view of a tragedy unfolding ... and its stirring denouement, which I won't reveal here. While this well-documented true story should hold the attention of every lawyer and judge -- and inspire altruism, it is a masterful walk through a period in history that would affect every reader. I re-read Amalia's Tale after completing Professor Kertzer's most recent release, The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, which is another book that ought not to be missed ... for the same reasons. Once again, Amalia's Tale proves that a true story, unadorned by the contrivances of fiction writing, can be inspiring, although the author of non-fiction cannot design the outcome. This book warrants five stars ... unless six are possible.
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