March 29–April 5, 2001
The Black Madonna brings Italian women to the foreground.
The Black Madonna
By Louisa Ermelino
Simon and Schuster, 252 p., $23
Louisa Ermelino’s debut novel reads like the ultimate date movie: a matriarchal mélange of Moonstruck, The Joy Luck Club and Steel Magnolias for the ladies in the house, with Goodfellas-style camaraderie and a straight-from-The Godfather visit to the homeland for the fellas.
Ermelino, a reporter for InStyle, structures the novel cinematically, telling the story of a community in New York’s Little Italy through a series of vivid tableaux. Except for the aforementioned excursion to the ancestral isolated Italian village, most of the action takes place on Spring Street in Little Italy, and focuses on Teresa, Antoinette and Magdalena, three neighbors and occasional rivals. The women spend their days either cooking, perched on the building’s stoop, or alternately adoring and berating their only sons. The sons, who also happen to be best friends, grow up together in the neighborhood, have various uptown and out of town adventures, and always return to the reassuring safety of mama and neighborhood.
Ermelino’s lovingly crafted novel is semi-autobiographical; she and her husband (a childhood friend of her brother’s) both grew up on Spring Street. Their family now lives upstairs from Ermelino’s brother and his family, and mom lives in the building next door. The story of Teresa’s son Nicky, who falls three stories off a fire escape while trying to swing between buildings on a rope, is based on husband Carlo Cutolo’s childhood fall, which was observed by his pal Jumbo. In the novel, Jumbo is transformed into Jumbo Mangiacarne, weighing 23 pounds at birth, the biggest baby ever born on Spring Street.
Magical realist elements such as Jumbo’s heft, of which his mother is inordinately proud, are chalked up to the Black Madonna of the title, whose benevolent countenance watches over Antoinette’s kitchen from her spot on the wall. Similarly, the Black Madonna is upstairs in Teresa’s apartment, though hidden in her underwear drawer. Teresa prays to the Black Madonna to heal Nicky’s partial paralysis after his plunge off the fire escape; her prayers are answered when Nicky suddenly walks at his father’s funeral. Similarly, Magdalena is said to have a shrine to the Black Madonna in her attic, where she practices powerful magic brought from her tiny mountain village in Italy.
"For me, the Black Madonna represents female power," Ermelino explains in her press kit interview. "She is embroiled in miracles and devotion and mysteries… she goes beyond the image of the sweet and loving mother. She is all about power, and she wants to be worshipped." Some say her face was blackened by gunpowder, or the candlesmoke of devotees; others call her a mix of the deities Kali, Isis, Diana and Aphrodite. In the novel, she functions as a best friend, protector and secret sauce for the community of women whose proximity and social conventions make them closer to each other than to their husbands.
Spring Street is undoubtedly a female community. The men of the novel are mere shadows, popping up to provide passion, lend funding, die, tend bar or break hearts. Even Nicky, Jumbo and Salvatore, the three sons, are richly drawn as children, under their mothers’ thumbs, but once puberty hits, their characters become less compelling. The women, however, are priceless, with characters as deep and full-bodied as a good Chianti. Whether congregating on the stoop watching the world go by, or braving the wilds above 57th Street for the sake of medical attention for a child, these are the archetypal mamas whose love is boundless and whose delicious pot of gravy can always be found burbling on the stove on Sundays. When Jumbo brings home his new bride, a Jewish girl from Long Island, he makes it a Sunday, "So the women would be home from church, stirring their gravy, too busy to gather one above the other. But they were not too busy to hang out the windows, and when Dante yelled up to tell Jumbo and Antoinette that the Bernfelds had arrived, they had all heard and they were leaning out now, elbows resting on the pillows that covered the window ledges so that they could sit comfortably and watch the street." Faced with this richly feminine world, who cares what the boys are doing? Their presence is almost an interruption.
Though the story of an insular Italian community is by now as familiar as a heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs, The Black Madonna manages a fresh take on the theme that is both satisfying and reassuring. With deft characterizations, vivid descriptions and a touch of magical realism, The Black Madonna is literary comfort food — delicious.