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  • Families, Lovers, and Their Letters: Italian Postwar Migration to Canada by Sonia Cancian
  • Joseph Pivato
Sonia Cancian. Families, Lovers, and Their Letters: Italian Postwar Migration to Canada. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2010. 192 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $34.95 sc.

After the Second World War, the largest migration of Italians in history took place not only to Canada and the United States, but to Argentina and other Latin American countries. Many villages in Italy were left as ghost towns well into the 1970s. Sonia Cancian has performed a very important task by analysing 400 private letters, especially three collections that represent communication from both Canada and Italy. The letters are written by immigrants from several towns and cities in Italy: Venice, Spilimbergo (Pordenone), Arcugnano (Vicenza), Rome, Ascoli Piceno and Ripabottoni (Campobasso). Cancian’s study sets out to address two main questions: (1) What do the letters of ordinary people reveal about the effects of translocation on the migrants and their relatives back in Italy? (2) What strategies, and what emotional, social and cultural responses do the letters demonstrate? After an historical review of postwar Italian immigration to Canada and the social contexts for the letter writers, Cancian organizes her study into thematic chapters on kinship ties and networks as means of support and control; gender relations and reproductive roles; the emotional impact of separation; and the role of the love letter. The information that Cancian gathers in answering her main questions makes fascinating reading for both the historian and the general reader. She writes in a clear style accessible to high school and university students.

As a social historian, Cancian describes the difficulty in finding and collecting the letters from the postwar period, especially significant groups of letters from both sides of the Atlantic. Her collection of hundreds of letters alone is an achievement. The final section on the love letters of immigration is quite moving and Cancian’s analysis is very helpful in understanding the social context. We learn, for example, that the love letters included unmarried lovers separated by immigration and married couples who may have lived apart for years before being reunited. Despite all of the nostalgia of the many Italian immigrant songs from the 1950s, it is hard to imagine our immigrant parents separated for years.

In her introduction, Cancian refers to several historians and seems to subscribe to the New Social History movement. She writes about “advocating the words of ordinary folks to speak for themselves....” (6) and yet she explains that “all the names have been changed to pseudonyms” (xi): “To preserve the confidentiality of the letter writers and the family archivists in possession of the letters, I have changed all the names to pseudonyms. In some cases, I have also changed other identifying information” (151). If the identities of people are changed, are they really speaking for themselves? The author has total control over the process: selecting the letters, translating [End Page 159] the letters, taking only short quotations from the letters, changing information, commenting on the letters, and editing the whole text. Was it also necessary to remove the identity of the real speaker? Does this not take away from the credibility of the study? I suspect that most of the Italian immigrants involved would have been quite happy, even proud, to have their real names used in the letters included in this volume. In the few cases where people wanted to keep confidentiality, those names only could have been changed. She writes that her study “demonstrates the role of the letters in reformulating and sustaining personal identities and relationships that have been disrupted as a result of migration” (7). Many of us would agree with her that the personal identity is important, as many migrants feared that they would be lost or swallowed up in the new world. I would expect that a social historian would be more sensitive to the questions of ethnic minority identity in Canada without being patronizing. Not only should we have the real names of these letter writers, but this volume could have included an appendix with complete letters from several of the immigrants in the book, with the letters in the original...


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pp. 159-160
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