It's curious that California, a place that's been known for its ethnic diversity since the Gold Rush, produced so little pre-1960 fiction focused on minority groups. The number is even smaller when limited to books by authors who are members of the groups they are portraying. Jo Pagano's depiction of Italian-Americans was thus something of a ground-breaking effort.
The Paesanos by Jo Pagano. Little, Brown and Co. (1940), 231 pp.
This book contains ten mostly light-hearted short stories that depict the everyday life of Italian-Americans in the 1930s. The main characters are Luigi Simone, a middle-class grocer, and his life-long pal from the old country, Gianpaolo Maccalucci, who owns a junk wagon. Most of the stories, told by Luigi’s Americanized son, focus on Gianpaolo’s well-meaning schemes and his generous friend’s willingness to pay for them. Several of the tales are set at parties and celebrations. The last two stories are more serious and try to give some perspective to the Italian-American experience in the United States.
Most of the stories in this book are light reading. They put Italian-Americans in a good light (which, of course, is where nearly all of them belong). There are no gangsters. There aren’t even people trying to cope with life’s serious problems. The stories, though always written with a sure hand, become a bit repetitious as the book progresses. They may remind older readers of the radio and TV series, “The Life of Luigi,” but were apparently not its inspiration. The book, one of the first about Italian-Americans, might find an audience today among those interested in the past experiences of that group.