Recommended for ages 12 and up.
One of the reasons I enjoy historical fiction is that it offers the opportunity to learn about little known episodes in our country's history, wrapped in the context of a compelling story. In writing Alligator Bayou, Donna Jo Napoli was inspired by a newspaper account about five Sicilian grocers in a small town in Louisiana who served a black customer who had entered the store first before a white one--and ended up lynched by a town mob. Many of the characters in the novel are based on the actual historical figures, but Napoli added a sixth grocer, a teenaged boy, Calogero. He and his relatives from Sicily don't understand the Jim Crow laws of the South, and when they shake hands with black boys their age, the other boys are speechless with surprise. Calogero takes a liking to Patricia, a very attractive black girl in the community, and she's attracted to him as well--but they have to keep their relationship secret. The Sicilians are not accepted by the white people in the town, who call them names and think they are all violent criminals and Mafia members. The black residents are kinder, even inviting Calogero and his cousins to a graduation party, where they are the only white guests, and inviting them to share a Fourth of July get-together.
Trouble is brewing in the small town, though, and it's not only because Calogero gets in trouble for going on a night-time alligator hunt in the swamps or because he wants to go to the neighborhood black school. The grocers' goats, who are left free to wander around at night, keep congregating on the porch of the town's doctor, Dr. Hodge. When they hear shots in the night, they discover that Hodge has made good on his threat to shoot the goats if they keep coming onto his property. Soon there is altercation between the doctor and the Sicilian grocers, and Calogero must run for safety. Will he escape the wrath of the local mob?
This novel delves into many prejudices prevalent in post-Civil War Louisiana; we see not only the expected racial divisions between blacks and whites, but also the hatred for the Italian immigrants, who poured into Louisiana through the port of New Orleans during the latter part of the 19th century, largely to work on sugar plantations. The terrible conclusion of this story is a lesson in the importance of tolerance, the evil of bigotry, and the need to get along with our neighbors from all countries, a lesson that is, unfortunately, still necessary in our multicultural society.
Alligator Bayou has received numerous awards, including the American Library Association Top Ten Best Books for Young Adults, Parents' Choice Gold Award for Historical Fiction, and International Reading Association's (IRA) Notable Books for a Global Society.
For those interested in learning more about this tragic story, a detailed account of the event in an article entitled Guns, Goats, and Italians: The Tallulah Lynching of 1899, is available on-line.