Elisa Speranza, author of The Italian Prisoner, was actually a friend of my husband, Bill’s. They met through politics and government service in Massachusetts. Elisa moved to New Orleans. We moved to Maine. When Bouchercon was in New Orleans in 2016, Elisa was kind enough to send us an email covering all the best places to see and eat, and then to meet us at a concert of NOLA musicians raising funds for musician victims of that year’s flood in Baton Rouge, a thank you to all who helped them after Katrina. It was one of the most memorable things we did there. It turned out that Elisa, too, was a fiction author and a friendship was born.
Elisa is giving away a signed copy of The Italian Prisoner to one lucky commenter below.
The Italian Prisoner is about Italian prisoners of war in New Orleans during World War II and the Sicilian-American community that offered them goodwill and support. From a genre perspective, it is historical fiction. I also think of it a “book club fiction,” because it’s the kind of novel that gives you plenty to think about and discuss after you’ve read it.
Here’s my interview with Elisa.
Barb: I have to admit I knew nothing about WWII POWs in this country until I read your book. I have since learned there were 4000 German POWs in Maine. How did you get interested in this topic?
Elisa: You’re not alone! I’ve talked to so many people—World War II history buffs, Italian Americans, New Orleans folks—unless people had some direct interaction with these prisoners of war, most people have no idea. I stumbled across the story when I met a man named Joe Faroldi, a local chef in New Orleans, back in about 2003. We were swapping stories about growing up in Italian families and he said, “well, my parents were a little different. My father was an Italian prisoner of war during World War II and my Mom was a local Sicilian girl in the French Quarter.” I was floored, and immediately thought, “someone should write a book about this.” It took me a while, but eventually I was that someone.
Barb: Most people associate New Orleans with people with French, Spanish, and Creole backgrounds. What was Little Palermo like in 1943. Is there anything left we can visit today?
Elisa: The migration of Sicilians to south Louisiana in the late 1800s, and subsequently into New Orleans, is another fascinating and little-known aspect of New Orleans culture and history. The lower end of the French Quarter was a thriving ethnic enclave by the early 1940s—the mayor of New Orleans was descended from Sicilian immigrants, local trumpet player and band leader Louis Prima was a star, and there were Italian grocery stores, macaroni factories, bakeries, and restaurants. You can still buy a muffuletta sandwich at Central Grocery, a cannoli at Brocato’s (though it’s moved to the Mid-City neighborhood), or stop into St. Mary’s Italian Church on Chartres Street to light a candle. And Louis’ daughter Lena Prima plays her father’s hits at the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Lounge every week.
Barb: There’s a love story at the heart of the book. Can you tell us something about the characters of Rose and Sal?
Elisa: Rose is 18 when the story opens. She’s the youngest daughter of Sicilian immigrants Frank and Filomena Marino. Her older brother Giovanni and sister Laura are off in the war, and Rose is left at home to work in her parents’ grocery store and pine away for a more eventful life. She gets herself a job as a bookkeeper at the Higgins shipyard, where her best friend Marie is a welder. Then the Army brings about 1000 Italian POWs, captured in North Africa, to Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. In real life, the US government asked Italian communities (churches, businesses, civic organizations) to help keep these men entertained and out of trouble—especially after Italy surrendered and switched sides in the war in September of 1943. Rose and Marie join a group of women from the neighborhood who go to visit the POWs—that’s when she first meets Sal, and Marie meets Vincenzo. One thing leads to another, just as it did in real life for at least 10 local women who met their future husbands that way. Sal is handsome, smart, and kind—but is that enough for Rose to give up her dreams of independence?
Barb: Rose is a character on a personal journey throughout the book. Against her parents wishes she goes to work in the Higgins Boat factory. What were Higgins boats, and what effect did working there have on Rose?
Elisa: Dwight Eisenhower called Andrew Higgins “the man who helped us win the war.” Higgins boats are the landing craft you see in so many newsreels and pictures of the landing at Normandy and other WWII battles. They were shallow draft boats originally designed for the bayous of south Louisiana—perfect for landing troops and vehicles directly on the beaches of Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. Higgins Industries employed over 20,000 people in an integrated workforce in seven New Orleans factories during the war. Like many women at that critical turning point in US history, Rose had her first experience of working outside the home. She loved learning new things, using her smarts, having her own money and a feeling of independence. The women were heavily recruited to fill in for the men, and they rose to the occasion, becoming essential to the remarkable success of the “arsenal of democracy.” Then when the men came back, most women were patted on the head and sent home. Everyone was relieved the war was over, but many women were not so happy to be expected to get back to the kitchen. Then we had the ‘50s, which is a whole different story.
Barb: The research for this book must have been amazing. Tell us about some of the people and sources you found along the way.
Elisa: The research was a blast! I spent a lot of time reading primary sources and learning about the war itself, what life was like on the home front, and the impact on women in particular. Luckily, the National World War II Museum is in New Orleans, and I had access to other great resources like the Historic New Orleans Collection. But the best part was meeting the real families who descended from those Italian POWs and their local Sicilian American sweethearts—including one of the POWs (who’s still alive at 99), Giovanni Distefano, and one of the wives, Marguerite Graffagnini Maranto (we lost her to COVID, sadly, but I got to interview her before the pandemic). The families were very generous with their memories, oral histories, photos, and other memorabilia. Linda DiMarzio Massicot, who’s mother and aunt both married Italian POWs was especially helpful in the research and as an early reader. And most of all, I had help from Sal Serio, Curator of the American Italian Library, who was my guide and touchstone throughout the journey. Sadly, Sal passed away about at age 87 about a month after the book was published. He was like a proud papa, and I’m so glad he lived to see the story out in the world.
Barb: You’re an accomplished writer, but The Italian Prisoner was your first foray into fiction. Will you stick with it? And with historical fiction? What are you working on now?
Elisa: Oh, yes. I’ve got the bug now! I’m working on a spin-off from the first book, which will be from the point of view of Laura, Rose’s sister who’s an Army nurse. In The Italian Prisoner, we only meet Laura through letters she’s writing to Rose from the front. In book #2, it’s 1955, flashing back to her time in the war, where things happened that will have repercussions years later.
Barb: What do you see when you look up from a writing session? Music, yes or no? Morning, afternoon, or night? Tell us something about your writing process.
Elisa: What a great question. A lot of things “count as writing” to me, including research and maybe even just thinking about my characters while I walk through the French Quarter. I tend to write in the afternoon, once I’ve finished with all my procrastination chores. When I look up from a writing session, I see the waning sunlight and birds on a telephone wire through the open skylight in my attic office. I smell the jasmine or the sweet olive from my courtyard below, and may hear a high school marching band practicing, the music from the calliope on the Steamship Natchez down on the Mississippi, the train whistle, or the clip-clop of a mule drawn cart coming up Burgundy Street, just as it might have back in Rose’s day.
Readers: Do you have a connection to the second World War? Did you know there were POWs in the States? Answer below or just say “hi,” to be entered to win a signed copy of The Italian Prisoner.
About The Italian Prisoner
1943. New Orleans. Rose Marino lives with her Sicilian immigrant parents and helps in the family grocery store. Her older brother and sister both joined the Army, and Rose prays for their safety as World War II rages overseas. Her parents expect Rose to marry a local boy and start a family. But she secretly dreams of being more like her fiercely independent widowed godmother. Behind her parents’ back, Rose lands a job at the shipyard, where she feels free and important for the first time in her life.
When the parish priest organizes a goodwill mission to visit Italian prisoners of war at a nearby military base, Rose and her vivacious best friend, Marie, join the group. There, Rose falls for Sal, a handsome and intelligent POW. Italy has switched sides in the war, so the POWs are allowed out to socialize, giving Rose and Sal a chance to grow closer. When Rose gets a promotion at work, she must make an agonizing choice: follow a traditional path like Marie or keep working after the war and live on her own terms.
Inspired by little-known historical events and set to a swing-era soundtrack, The Italian Prisoner is an engrossing story of wartime love, family secrets, and a young woman’s struggle to chart her own course at an inflection point in American history.
Elisa M. Speranza (she/her) is the granddaughter of Irish and Italian immigrants, raised Catholic, and educated by nuns. She’s been a writer and book nerd all her life. Her first paid job was in the children’s room of her town’s public library, and she was a journalist early in her career, before spending thirty-plus years in the water and critical infrastructure business. The Italian Prisoner is her first novel.
Ms. Speranza serves as Board Chair for the New Orleans Writers Workshop. A native Bostonian and die-hard member of Red Sox Nation, she is an alumna of Boston College and Harvard’s Kennedy School. She lives with Jon Kardon in New Orleans and Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.