Wartime, pasta & Dean Martin: ‘The Proxy Bride’ by Zoë Boccabella
September 26, 2022
Can you imagine boarding a ship to voyage across the world to live in an unfamiliar country, learn a new language AND join a man you had never met, as his wife? This was the life changing decision of thousands of young Italian women and their families in the period leading up to WWII, and is the basis of The Proxy Bride. The brides in question were married ‘by proxy’ in Italy (with a male family member standing in for the groom, who was far away in Australia) before leaving to begin their new lives.
Why did they leave their homeland under such circumstances? According to the author, it was a combination of desperate poverty in Italy, Italian men already in Australia outnumbering potential brides of Italian birth, and a desire by families to give their daughters a chance for a better future.
I was surprised to learn of this chapter of Australia’s migrant history. The Proxy Bride tells a compelling and sympathetic story of hope, loss, homesickness, culture and prejudice, putting the historical events into a relatable context.
Gia is a courageous protagonist, travelling towards a future with Taddeo, a quiet man who has established himself in Queensland’s Stanthorpe region, growing apples and peaches and mixing mainly with other Italian migrants in the district. When Gia arrives, there is no spark of romance between the new couple. Some of her compatriots who had travelled with her on the voyage to Australia have more luck with their arranged marriages, others less so. It is essentially a ‘pot luck’ scenario, but mostly, the couples try to make the best of what fate has sent their way, working hard to establish themselves and earn a living.
Unfortunately for Gia (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), there is an immediate and lasting spark between her and a neighbouring farmer, Keith, though they both know that nothing permanent can come of their connection.
Then along comes the outbreak of war and Italian men (now considered ‘enemy aliens’) are taken to internment camps for an indefinite period, leaving behind bewildered women wondering how they can support themselves until their husbands return. The women need to learn new skills and manage the tasks previously done by their menfolk, to ensure a harvest that will allow them to live and feed themselves and their children.
They do this by banding together, supporting each other while facing shame, ridicule, and bullying from many in the local community. We must not forget that this was during the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy and before the influx of European migrants brought about by the end of the war. Wartime suspicion of anyone seen as aligned with Germany, Italy or Japan ran deep.
At the same time, newsreel footage portrays parts of Italy suffering under heavy bombardment by Allied forces, so the women live with the agony of not knowing if their families back home are safe.
In between Gia’s story, the author has woven in the first-person narrative of her grand-daughter, Sofie, who has come to spend the summer holidays with Gia. Sofie is sixteen, that tender age during which young people test their boundaries, seek out their own identity, and (sometimes) begin to see their parents and grandparents with fresh eyes, as people in their own right, with lives and loves and experiences apart from those connected with their children.
Sofie’s story is complicated by the fact that she has never known her father, and there seems to be secrecy around his identity. Even as Gia shares with Sofie the story of her early life in Australia, her ‘proxy bride’ status and the painful events during the war, there remains a reluctance to venture into Sofie’s own beginnings.
The way in which Gia’s and Sofie’s stories connect is revealed towards the novel’s climax. It’s not an easy story to tell or hear, but it allows Sofie to move closer to her mother, grandmother, and Italian extended family and community.
Gia plays her beloved Dean Martin albums on near constant rotation, so his voice is the backdrop to Sofie’s holiday time with her grandmother – as is cooking.
Each of Sofie’s chapters is named after a particular dish her grandmother makes, always based on traditional Calabrian recipes. And Gia loves to use chilli, from a plant grown from seeds her own grandmother gave her when she left Italy so long ago. ‘Angry spaghetti’ is a favoured dish (spaghetti all’Arrabbiata Calabrese) and I was delighted to discover the recipe for this and quite a few other special dishes made by Gia in the novel, at the back of the book. It absolutely felt like a gift from Gia to me, the reader!
Cooking is a theme throughout the novel and a beautiful metaphor to express the ways in which love, culture, connection and family can be passed on through favoured recipes, cooking and sharing food together.
‘Go on. Close your eyes. Breathe in.’ The sharp tang hit my nostrils first, then a little bit of acridity, followed by sweetness and last of all a current of mellow earthy oil. I open my eyes to Nonna Gia beaming. ‘It’s the same scent your ancestors breathed when they cooked this dish.’ And just then it was almost as if the aroma released a trigger of deep memories that let things rise up and take shape in ourselves.
The Proxy Bride p369
The Proxy Bride shines a light into a little-known or understood corner of the migrant story in Australia, told through complex characters no doubt informed by the author’s own family experiences as Italian migrants. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the read.
The Proxy Bride is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.