book-cover-every-single-secondJust as an apple, cut and cored, cannot be put back together, Nella Sabatini–a young Italian Catholic girl–feels undone, confused, and incomplete.  Restless with desire for things her parents cannot afford, for popularity that evades her, and for a sense of peace and quiet that is in short supply with a houseful of “barbarian brothers” and a grandmother who is demanding and grumpy, “ancient and ignorant,” Nella aches for answers to life’s toughest questions and difficult dilemmas.  With happy moments so ephemeral, she wishes, “If only you could store up happiness. . . . Dig a happiness hole, or keep a happiness piggy bank, saving up for when you ran out” (23).

One of Nella’s friends, Clem Patchett—an only child with educated and wealthy parents—seems to have scored life’s luxuries: solitude, pets, travel, a private education, and choices.  Clem’s circumstances provoke Nella to wonder: “How did you win the super jackpot in the parent lottery” (30)?

Another friend, Angela DeMarco has a brother who will do anything to ensure his sister’s happiness—even break the law.   And Angela’s father is a former soldier with PTSD who can’t leave his grief behind; he scares his children, and his wife eventually leaves.  The DeMarco’s circumstances provoke Nella to wonder: “Just because you did one thing right, did it mean you were good? And if that was true, did doing one wrong thing mean you were bad” (53)?

Like most good stories, Every Single Second by Tricia Springstubb has multiple layers.  When you peel one back, another presents itself—just as intriguing and thought-provoking as the previous.  Like a curious child, Springstubb’s book keeps asking challenging questions about tough topics like civil rights, social justice, God, free will, secrets, choices, love, and friendship.

Despite what Sister Rosa might say about how God offers us choices, to Nella, most of life doesn’t feel like humans have free will: “Where and when you were born.  Who you got for parents. Whether you were pretty or not, smart or not, black or white or brown.  Whether you happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time and made one mistake and afterward nothing was ever the same.  You couldn’t choose any of these enormous, important things” (218).

Before she ever reaches junior high, Nella learns enough to last a lifetime.  When tragedy enters her life and when she and her neighborhood of Little Italy in New York City become the target of prejudice, Nella confronts racial and economic divides.  She also experiences what it feels like to be on the receiving end of another’s judging without knowing.  Other lessons include the following:

  • Desire/yearning can create an ache just as easily as death.
  • Dreams can be cruelly snatched away.
  • People, like cameras, can choose to focus on one thing and leave out everything else.
  • Good people don’t always win.
  • “The true test [of character] is not what we choose for ourselves. It is how we deal with what life chooses for us” (112).
  • Because time is precious and every second counts, “too late” or “if only” can be the worst words one has to speak.
  • The past doesn’t remain in the past; memory haunts like any ghost.
  • Although we feel like a master of secrets, we are actually a slave to them.
  • “Laughing at the plight of another is a sign of low breeding and coarse character” (112).
  • “We need to be kind because we should, not because it’s easy” (142).
  • Happiness is achieved when what you yearn for and what you have are one and the same.
  • Goodness takes courage and the ability “to see through eyes other than your own” (237).

From her brother Vinny, who for several years produces only unintelligible speech sounds, Nella additionally learns how important words can be, despite their slippery and mysterious natures.  “Without words, you [are] alone.  No matter how much you love someone, without words you [are] only partly connected” (213).

Following so closely on the heels of the Trayvon Martin shooting, Every Single Second fills a timely need, serving as a catalyst for sparking conversations on complex social issues.  Although differences in socioeconomic circumstances, language, ethnicity, age, race, place, religion, exceptionality, and gender have potential to cause division, Every Single Second gives us hope for bridging the cultural divide.  From Nella, we experience how unfamiliar places often feel foreign.  We may think the people who live in such places are not like us, with their different ideas, customs, and concerns, but Nella shows us how to navigate the cultural divide.  Springstubb’s book further raises social consciousness and supports collaborative conversation by inviting us to imagine another way to see.  It supports unity by dispelling some of the myths and misperception about diversity.  It also addresses issues of power and oppression and provides an opportunity to view these issues from a different perspective, thereby inspiring empathy-building.  Books that help to construct this culturally responsive mindset give me hope, hope that we can mitigate human cruelty and the tendency to hate, reject, or ignore what one doesn’t know or even try to understand.

Through Nella’s eyes and actions, readers learn that change starts with small acts of kindness, courage, goodness, and the desire to see through eyes other than our own.  We can begin to eradicate prejudice and misunderstanding when we act out of compassion and when we let goodness guide us.  Goodness takes courage, courage to speak out as an ally—not standing on the sidelines, pretending not to hear.  We can replace prejudice and misunderstanding with equality and compassion only when we overrule our hearts and do the difficult work that kindness demands.

Another of the book’s bonuses is what the reader can learn about Italian culture.  Just as Markus Zusak infuses The Book Thief with German language and other cultural markers as Liesel Meminger learns about goodness amid hate, Springstubb sprinkles hers with Italian words like mille grazie (thank you) and ciao (hello/goodbye).  We also attend a carnival in the church parking lot where bocce is played.   A competitive game of skill, bocce or Italian bowling, is played with a small ball—also known as the jack—and eight larger balls.  With features of bowling, golf, and shuffleboard, the game sharpens the reflexes and judgement.  Through the celebration of the Feast of St. Amphibalus, readers salivate at the mention of Italian sausage and peppers, cavatelli and meatballs, stromboli and gelato.   Although culture is much more than cuisine, readers get a glimpse of the culture that is lived day by day through that group’s language, family kinships, and community social networks.

With all of these features, Every Single Second fits my definition of Cultural Identity Literature, a term I coined to enlarge the traditional term multicultural literature.

  • Posted by Donna

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