The Queen of the Big Time : A Novel

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9781400060061: The Queen of the Big Time : A Novel
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Known and loved around the world for her sweeping Big Stone Gap trilogy and the instant New York Times bestseller Lucia, Lucia, Adriana Trigiani returns to the charm and drama of small-town life with Queens of the Big Time. This heartfelt story of the limits and power of love chronicles the remarkable lives of the Castellucas, an Italian-American family, over the course of three generations.

In the late 1800s, the residents of a small village in the Bari region of Italy, on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, made a mass migration to the promised land of America. They settled in Roseto, Pennsylvania, and re-created their former lives in their new home–down to the very last detail of who lived next door to whom. The village’s annual celebration of Our Lady of Mount Carmel–or “the Big Time,” as the occasion is called by the young women who compete to be the pageant’s Queen–is the centerpiece of Roseto’s colorful old-world tradition.

The industrious Castellucas farm the land outside Roseto. Nella, the middle daughter of five, aspires to a genteel life “in town,” far from the rigors of farm life, which have taken a toll on her mother and forced her father to take extra work in the slate quarries to make ends meet. But Nella’s dreams of making her own fortune shift when she meets Renato Lanzara, the son of a prominent Roseto family. Renato is a worldly, handsome, devil-may-care poet who has a way with words that makes him irresistible. Their friendship ignites into a fiery romance that Nella is certain will lead to marriage. But Nella is not alone in her pursuit: every girl in town seems to want Renato. When he disappears without explanation, Nella is left with a shattered heart. Four years later, Renato’s sudden return to Roseto the night before Nella’s wedding to the steadfast Franco Zollerano leaves her and the Castelluca family shaken. For although Renato has chosen a path very different from Nella’s, they are fated to live and work in Roseto, where the past hangs over them like a brewing storm.

An epic of small-town life, etched in glorious detail in the trademark Trigiani style, The Queen of the Big Time is the story of a determined, passionate woman who can never forget her first love.

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About the Author:

ADRIANA TRIGIANI is an award-winning playwright, television writer, and documentary filmmaker. The author of the bestselling Big Stone Gap trilogy and the novel Lucia, Lucia, Trigiani has written the screenplay for the movie Big Stone Gap, which she will also direct. She lives in New York City, with her husband and daughter.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

Today is the day my teacher, Miss Stoddard, comes to see my parents. She sent them a letter telling them she wanted to come to our house to discuss “the further education of Nella Castelluca.” The letter is official, it was written on a typewriter, signed by my teacher with a fountain pen, dated October 1, 1924, and at the top there’s a gold stamp that says pennsylvania education authority. We never get fancy mail on the farm, only handwritten letters from our relatives in Italy. Mama is saving the envelope from Miss Stoddard for me in a box where she keeps important papers. Sometimes I ask her to show it to me, and every time I read it, I am thrilled all over again.

I hope my parents decide to let me go to school in Roseto. Delabole School only goes to the seventh grade, and I’ve repeated it twice just so I can keep learning. Miss Stoddard is going to tell my parents that I should be given the opportunity to go to high school in town because I have “great potential.”

I am the third daughter of five girls, and I have never been singled out for anything. Finally, it feels like it’s my turn. It’s as though I’m in the middle of a wonderful contest: the music has stopped, the blindfolded girl has pointed to me, and I’ve won the cakewalk. I’ve hardly slept a wink since the letter arrived. I can’t. My whole world will change if my parents let me go to school. My older sisters, Assunta and Elena, stopped going to school after the seventh grade. Neither wanted to continue and there is so much work on the farm, it wasn’t even discussed.

I was helping Mama clean the house to prepare for our company, but she made me go outside because I was making her nervous. She’s nervous? I don’t know if I will make it until two o’clock.

As I lean against the trunk of the old elm at the end of our lane and look up, the late-afternoon sunlight comes through the leaves in little bursts like a star shower, so bright I have to squint so my eyes won’t hurt. Over the hill, our farmhouse, freshly painted pale gray, seems to dance above the ground like a cloud.

Even the water in the creek that runs past my feet seems full of possibility; the old stones that glisten under the water look like silver dollars. How I wish they were! I would scoop them up, fill my pockets, and bring them to Mama, so she could buy whatever she wanted. When I think of her, and I do lots during the day, I remember all the things she doesn’t have and then I try to think up ways to give her what she needs. She deserves pretty dishes and soft rugs and glittering rings. She makes do with enamel plates, painted floorboards, and the locket Papa gave her when they were engaged. Papa smiles when I tell him about my dreams for Mama, and sometimes I think he wishes he could give her nice things too, but we’re just farmers.

If only I could get an education, then I could get a good job and give Mama the world. Papa says I get my brains from her. She is a quick study; in fact, she taught herself to read and write English. Mama spends most nights after dinner teaching Papa to read English, and when he can’t say the words properly, Mama laughs, and then Papa curses in Italian and she laughs harder.

I feel guilty being so happy because usually this is a sad time of year, as the green hills of Delabole turn toffee-colored, which means that soon winter will come and we will have the hog killing. Papa says that if we want to eat, we must help. All the chores around the killing used to bother me; now I don’t cry much. I just stay busy. I help stretch the cloth tarps where the innards lay in the smokehouse before they’re made into sausage, and line the wooden barrels where the scraps go. I have taught my sisters how to separate the innards and rinse them in the cool stream of the springhouse. There’s always plenty of help. Papa invites all his friends from Roseto, and we make a party of it. The dinner at the end of the day is the best part, when the women make tenderloin on the open pit and Papa’s friends tell stories of Italy. It helps to laugh because then you don’t think about the dying part so much.

“Nella?” Mama calls out from the porch.

“Over here!” I holler back.

“Come inside!” She motions me over and goes back into the house.

I carefully place my bookmark in the middle of Jane Eyre, which I am reading for the third time, and pick up the rest of my books and run to the house. It doesn’t look so shabby since the paint job, and the ground around it is much better in autumn, more smooth, after the goat has eaten his fill of the grass. Our farm will never be as beautiful as the houses and gardens in town. Anything that’s pretty on the farm is wild. The fields covered in bright yellow dandelions, low thickets of tiny red beach roses by the road, and stalks of black-eyed Susans by the barn are all accidents.

Roseto is only three miles away, but it might as well be across an ocean. When the trolley isn’t running, we have to walk to get there, mostly through fields and on back roads, but the hike is worth it. The trolley costs a nickel, so it’s expensive for all of us to ride into town. Sometimes Papa takes out the carriage and hitches our horse Moxie to take us in, but I hate that. In town, people have cars, and we look silly with the old carriage.

Papa knows I like to go into town just to look at the houses. Roseto is built on a hill, and the houses are so close together, they are almost connected. When you look down the main street, Garibaldi Avenue, the homes look like a stack of candy boxes with their neat red-brick, white-clapboard, and gray-fieldstone exteriors.

Each home has a small front yard, smooth green squares of grass trimmed by low hedges. There are no bumps and no shards of shale sticking up anywhere. Orange, yellow, and purple bachelor buttons grow along the walkways in rows. On the farm, the land has pits and holes and the grass grows in tufts. Every detail in Roseto’s landscape seems enchanted, from the fig trees with their spindly branches to the open wood arbors covered with white blossoms in the spring, which become fragrant grapes by summer.

Even the story of how Roseto became a town is like a fairy tale. We make Papa tell the story because he remembers when the town was just a camp with a group of Italian men who came over to find work in the quarries. The men were rejected in New York and New Jersey because they were Pugliese and had funny accents that Italians in those places could not understand. One of Papa’s friends saw an ad in a newspaper looking for quarry workers in Pennsylvania, so they pooled what little money they had and took the train to Bangor, about ninety miles from New York City, to apply for work. At first, there was resistance to hiring the Italians, but when the quarry owners saw how hard the immigrants worked, they made it clear that more jobs were available. This is how our people came to live here. As the first group became established, they sent for more men, and those men brought their families. The Italians settled in an area outside Bangor called Howell Town, and eventually, another piece of land close by was designated for the Italians. They named it Roseto, after the town they came from. In Italian, it means “hillside covered with roses.” Papa tells us that when the families built their homes here, they positioned them exactly as they had been in Italy. So if you were my neighbor in Roseto Valfortore, you became my neighbor in the new Roseto.

Papa’s family were farmers, so the first thing he did when he saved enough money working in the quarry was to lease land outside Roseto and build his farm. The cheapest land was in Delabole, close enough to town and yet too far for me. Papa still works in the quarry for extra money sometimes, but mainly his living comes from the three cows, ten chickens, and twelve hogs we have on the farm.

“Mama made everything look nice,” Elena tells me as she sweeps the porch. She is sixteen, only two years older than me, but she has always seemed more mature. Elena is Mama’s helper; she takes care of our two younger sisters and helps with the household chores. She is thin and pretty, with pale skin and dark brown eyes. Her black hair falls in waves, but there is always something sad about her, so I spend a lot of time trying to cheer her up.

“Thanks for sweeping,” I tell her.

“I want everything to look perfect for Miss Stoddard too.” She smiles.

There is no sweeter perfume on the farm than strong coffee brewing on the stove and Mama’s buttery sponge cake, fresh out of the oven. Mama has the place sparkling. The kitchen floor is mopped, every pot is on its proper hook, and the table is covered in a pressed blue-and-white-checked tablecloth. In the front room, she has draped the settee in crisp white muslin and placed a bunch of lavender tied with a ribbon in the kindling box by the fireplace. I hope Miss Stoddard doesn’t notice that we don’t have much furniture.

“How do I look?” Mama asks, turning slowly in her Sunday dress, a simple navy blue wool crepe drop-waist with black buttons. Mama’s hair is dark brown; she wears it in a long braid twisted into a knot at the nape of her neck. She has high cheekbones and deep-set brown eyes; her skin is tawny brown from working in the field with Papa.

“Beautiful.”

Mama laughs loudly. “Oh Nella, you always lie to make me feel good. But that’s all right, you have a good heart.” Mama pulls a long wooden spoon from the brown crock on the windowsill. She doesn’t have to ask; I fetch the jar of raspberry jam we put up last summer from the pantry. Mama takes a long serrated knife, places her hand on top of the cool cake, and without a glitch slices the sponge cake in two, lengthwise. No...

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