From her childhood in an Italian-American family in 1950s Brooklyn through schooling, marriage, and parenthood, Carol Falvo Heffernan's memoir is a quintessentially American story of immigration and aspiration.
Carol Falvo Heffernan grew up in an Italian-American family in Brooklyn during the 1940s and ’50s, but her account of her childhood, recalling an large circle of relatives and friends, extending through her schooling and first years of marriage, is no mere exercise in nostalgia. To read her story is to encounter once again the foundational American truth that we are a nation of immigrants, even if each new wave of immigrants has encountered suspicion, all too often hatred, and hardship at the hands of those who came before. Our fabled “melting pot” is a rich stew of cultures – and it’s no accident that Heffernan devotes many pages to descriptions of feasts and foodways, including recipes (not least the titular dandelion salad), for it is through food that we most often identify with our roots, and invite others in to share in our various traditions. Part family saga, part Bildungsroman, part scrapbook of old New York City locales and activities, part travelogue, this is a rich cultural document that rewards the reader with a host of details. (For instance, we observe that some Catholic families were already disregarding church proscriptions against birth control as early as the 1940s; and we’re invited along on a European holiday, infant in arms, as part of the first generation of middle-class Americans to embark on such travels.) In the span of only a few generations, Heffernan’s family went from laborers and horse-drawn ice wagons (her grandfather appears on the cover) to the music rooms of Julliard and classrooms of major universities. Her story is both unique, and universal, quintessentially American. There’s a whiff of the mythical to it: she reveals in the opening pages that one homeplace of childhood memories is long-demolished, and her epilogue is largely an obituary for many of the people we have just met. Her main narrative concludes fifty years ago. How the world has changed since then – and how much it hasn’t. By sharing her personal memories, Heffernan invites us to learn from them – and just maybe, be better for it.
Literary Nonfiction. Memoir.
Carol Falvo Heffernan is Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark. Among her published books are Comedy in Chaucer and Boccaccio (Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 2009), The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance(Cambridge, England: D. S. Brewer, 2003), The Melancholy Muse: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Early Medicine (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne UP, 1995), and others. Her articles have appeared in such scholarly journals as The Chaucer Review, Magistra, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Modern Philology, and Notes and Queries.