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The Wheel Keeper

By Robert Pepper-Smith

Review By Gabriele Scardellato

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 147 Autumn 2005  | p. 132-4

In The Wheel Keeper , first-time novelist Robert Pepper-Smith, an instructor at Malaspina University College in Nanaimo, British Columbia, has written an engaging and often enchanting tale that draws heavily on three generations of the Italian migration and immigration experience to western Canada. Judging by one of the surnames on the novel’s dedication page, and by many other markers scattered throughout the text, one concludes that there is much in Pepper- Smith’s novel that is autobiographical. The novel’s narrator, Michael Guzzo, is the third generation in a family that has its origins in late-nineteenth/earlytwentieth- century Scotland and the south of Italy.

In this novel Pepper-Smith transplants an old-world Italian village setting to a valley in the southern Interior of British Columbia. This transplant, however, is overwhelmed in the New World – literally drowned by modernity – by the building of a hydroelectric dam that floods the valley with its “village” and the surrounding orchards that had been maintained by its Italian-origin residents. It is also a tale about another type of disappearance: a coming-of-age story that chronicles the transition from the innocence of childhood through adolescence to the world of adults. “Children vanish. They vanish through doors, under stairs, in the branches of apricot trees” (5).

The story begins with Old World migrations. A Scottish artisan, a slater and one of the narrator’s great grandparents, walks from Dundee, Scotland, to southern Italy (perhaps to the Region of Campania or Calabria) in search of slate for a roof that he is constructing. His quest is more than successful in that he returns to Dundee not only with suitable slate but also with a wife from the village. In time, the couple’s son, also a slater and on a quest similar to that of his father, returns to his mother’s birthplace where he becomes the wheel keeper of the novel’s title. In that position he is responsible for working a wheel mechanism used to receive infants – often from women forced to give them up because they were born out of wedlock – anonymously through the wall of the village hospice. The Scottish-Italian wheel keeper receives the daughter of the woman whom he will follow to Canada after she reclaims her daughter from the hospice – a journey she undertakes in order to join her brother so that she cannot be forced to give up her child born out of wedlock. Their immigration to the unnamed settlement in British Columbia is an act of relocation, or displacement, that will be followed by another when they and their adult children and their families are forced from the valley – uprooted (62) – to make way for its flooding.

Much of the novel is set in the days leading up to that traumatic event and also in the narrator’s early adolescent memories of growing up in the village. He is the grandson of the woman – nostre nonna – who fled her Italian village with her newborn, followed by the slater, the man whom she would marry and whom she would lose in a landslide in British Columbia in the early 1920s. The novel itself is slender – only a little more than a hundred loosely typeset pages – but it manages to pack a remarkably complex tale within its narrow limits. In fact some readers, like the author of this review, might feel the need to compile a genealogy of the four generations of immigrants and their descendants at the centre of this narrative in order to keep track of them throughout the complicated storyline.

The novel’s unnamed BC village is presented as an Italian enclave. Almost without exception the narrative focuses on its Italian-origin residents, with only a handful of references to its non-Italian features: the Swede’s barn (7), Mackenzie Avenue (44), Modern Bakery (45), Bruski’s store (65), and the Swede’s house (65). Throughout, Pepper-Smith’s language is evocative and compelling: “I can still smell the burning dill. It had a sweet smell, the grey smoke that drifts on the river while my uncle plays his yellow zerocetti. The dill torches hiss as they strike the river among the flowers sent out for the festa” (61).

As in this example, standard Italian terminology abounds in the text: for example, a festa campestra rather than a picnic (55), commare for godmother (56), bambina piccola for young baby girl (22), the wheel keeper himself is the ruotaro (9), and so forth. Its usage may be intended to impart an Italian atmosphere to the narrative and, to some extent, this is successful. Unfortunately, this terminology is also often reproduced “ambivalently.” In the examples cited above, and in others, the terms are presented in accurate, standard Italian. In many other instances, however, it is not clear whether a deviation from this form of the Italian language is intended – meant, for example, to convey what linguists call a language shift that occurs in language use by immigrants and their descendants – or whether it is the result of inattentive editing.

Throughout the text, and as cited above, the narrator refers to his grandmother as nostre nonna rather than nostra (our) nonna or grandmother. The standard Italian spelling gnocchi is always reproduced as gnocci; a young male baby is described as bambino piccola rather than the masculine piccolo; a priest in Italy mocks the ways of his village parishioners and dismisses their celebration as a festa paesane rather than a festa paesana; and so forth. In one rather crucial instance, the text renders the sign, or marker, of recognition that was attached to a newborn about to be passed into the hospice through the wheel mechanism as segni (plural) di riconoscimento rather than as segno (singular) di riconoscimento, and on the very last page of the text, an otherwise moving dedication to future generations is marred by the misspelling(?) signe: “I offer this signe to our children; may it guide them under the tongue” (118). Similarly, the hospice in the Italian village of origin is printed as ospizia (feminine) rather than the standard Italian ospizio (masculine). The migrant workers (said to consist of Italians, Québécois, and Portuguese) who return annually to the BC valley for its harvest and who are a central motif in the narrative are called golondrinas, which is translated as “swallows” in the text; however, this is not standard Italian either for the birds themselves or for migrant workers, who are usually referred to as rondine or rondinelle (diminutive, little swallows). Are these spellings intended to convey language shift – perhaps starting from the original language of Campania or Calabria spoken by the immigrants and learned and remembered by the text’s third-generation narrator – or are they editorial oversights?

For this reader, questions like these are distracting and do a disservice to a text that deserves, and will amply reward, a reader’s undivided attention. Pepper-Smith has written a novel that provides a moving glimpse – made up of many memorable images – of a world in transition from old to new, both in Italy and in Canada.