"I was fascinated with the history of Italy, but had a very negative opinion of Sicily," Vallone said. "I had no idea how erroneous I was to feel this way - there was a lot to learn."
Vallone said she had always heard disparaging remarks about Sicily by Italian-Americans not of Sicilian descent, that "[Sicilians] were dark, swarthy, underhanded people involved with the Mafia, was always the impression I got."
From studying about Sicily, Vallone learned that the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea off the southern coast of Italy is rich in history and culture. The sonnet was first introduced by the Sicilian School of poets, and the island was the bread basket of the Roman Empire, with a diverse population."Its people are a combination of Normans Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Spanish, French, and the native tribes of Sicily," she said. "It's a fascinating place." Vallone started her first novel, historical fiction called Beyond Bagheria, "six summers ago" while working as a substitute Spanish teacher in Bergen County and raising two children. She wrote during her time off in the summer. The novel concerns a Sicilian girl left an orphan in the town of Bagheria, near Sicily's capital, by the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. Bagheria is about 15 miles from the capital, Palermo. She is lured to America by the prospect of marriage, and winds up in New Orleans, a place of changing attitudes toward Italians. The book was released on Columbus Day, Oct. 10, and Vallone was at the Secaucus Public Library a week ago Thursday to give a lecture on Italian immigration to America in the late 19th century, as well as to read the first chapter of her new book. The Panasonic Room on the second floor of the library was filled to capacity with well-wishers and eager readers.
Tragedy in New Orleans
"My father is a veteran storyteller, and I wanted to use all his tales about Italy in one story," Vallone said. "Details about the climate, people's mores at that time, and living conditions in southern Italy."
Her father, Onofrio Palombella, immigrated to Hoboken from Molfetta in the Bari Province of Italy when he was 22 years old. His mother's brother, Leonardo DePinto, and his wife, Vincenza, lived in Hoboken. Their sons are still in there, Vallone said.
The author said she was able to intertwine the stories her father told about "the old country" with her own experiences in Italy to tell a tale of young woman caught in a web of greed, power and prejudice in the New Orleans of the 1920s. A picture she took while in Italy is used on the cover of the novel.
"The climax of the book was inspired by a dark chapter in Italian-American history that occurred in New Orleans at the end of the 1800s," Vallone said.
In 1891, 11 Italian immigrants were murdered by a mob of New Orleans residents. Vallone's lecture was on the subsequent research she did on life for Italian immigrants in Louisiana. She showed a request for 4,500 Italian workers on an 1850 handbill that advertised them as strong, reliable and hard working - the ideal hire. Then she showed a letter from a New Orleans official dated 1890 and a different story was told - calling Italians lazy, lairs and mostly ex-convicts who "monopolize the fruit, oyster and fish trades and are nearly all peddlers, tinkers or cobblers."
"In 40 years, the attitudes changed drastically," said Vallone. "This is the climate that my heroine enters [into New Orleans]."
Book lovers and others
"I can't believe the crowd helping me to inaugurate the book," Vallone said. "I'm overwhelmed by the amount of support."
Kitty Emery has been a Secaucus resident for the past 50 years who reads "every day." She said Beyond Bagheria is "hard to put down." She said many of the people who came know the Vallone family, but "it's more than that." "You learn so much about the two places in the book [Bagheria and New Orleans]," she said. "I kept wanting to know what was going to happen next."
Another veteran Secaucus resident, Marie Bopp, said she travels to Italy on vacation.
"I'm Polish, but I go to Italy a lot. I've never been to Sicily or read the book," said Bopp. "No matter how many times I go back there - it's always different. That's what I like about Italy."
Secaucus tax preparer Ralph R. S. Staiano, Jr., said he came to hear the lecture since he is working on a book about Italian-American baseball players of the same period in America.
"I'm researching Tony Lazzeri, Joe DiMaggio and Frank Crossetti of the Yankee dynasty," said Staiano. "They were all in the same time frame as her [Vallone's] research."
Clifton resident Tony Mussaro said he reads books regularly and became interested in Vallone's book since he is of Italian descent.
"I intend to read the book and am very impressed with this library," said Mussaro.
Connections to Secaucus
Vallone met her husband of 30 years, Bob, at Montclair State University where they both students. He said his biggest contribution to the evolution of his wife's book was "staying out of her way" while she was writing it. "It took a long time, but the kids and I gave her the space she needed when she was glued to the computer writing," he said.
Mr. Vallone was born and raised in Secaucus. As newlyweds, the couple lived in Secaucus for a 1.5 years before moving to Rockland County. They have lived in New City for the last 23 years. Bob's mother, Frances "Chickie" Vallone, a retired McGraw-Hill editor, still lives in Secaucus.
"I became intrigued with the book once I started it," Chickie Vallone said. "I felt sorry for Isabella [the main character of the book] through the whole book. You don't want to stop until you reach the end."
Secaucus resident Edna Mondadori facilitates the Monday afternoon book club at the library. She said the group will read Beyond Bagheria, which is published by PublishAmerica, next month.
"This library is so busy - there is just so much to do here," said Mondadori. "It's wonderful to have someone come who has history in Secaucus."
Vallone self-published Stone Perpendicular to Stone - A Tribute to the Land of My Ancestors in 1997. She is currently working on another historical novel, Stupor Mundi, based on the life of Constance D'AltaVilla, the 12th century Queen of Sicily, Queen of Germany and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and D'Alta Villa's son Frederick Barbarossa. She has also been a contributor to two anthologies: Imprints on Rockland County History and Curragia: Writings of Italian-American Women.