At the heart of this small novel is an unworldly child focused on survival in dire circumstances, finding unexpected grace in the words of an old woman, an instinct of preservation heightening both a sense of imminent danger and an appreciation of transcendent beauty. Merely a child in a poverty-riddled rural village, Joseph knows only the limited restraints of his experience - the scarcity of food, the jealousy of older brothers for a favored sibling, the extremes of behavior that attend starvation, and the arbitrary boundaries of expedience.
In this retelling of an old folk tale, Joseph is devastated by the brutal slaying of his friend by local robbers, the boy falling prey to the bad intentions of others. Given an impossible task, he is sent into the mountains with a message by jealous brothers and a crooked mayor who plot that Joseph should not return from his dangerous mission.
Arriving at his destination, Joseph is aware of the precariousness of his situation, sheltered in a dilapidated farmhouse by a wise old woman who cooks for the same band of robbers who have probably murdered Joseph’s friend. Heeding her words of caution, he hones an exquisite sensitivity to the danger around him, watching the comings and goings of the criminals.
While he gathers wild basil and asparagus for the old woman’s bountiful concoctions, he learns as well the probable consequences of his dilemma, the robber’s tentative tolerance and the enemies who would see him dead. Educated in the nuances of brutality, the boy survives on his wit and acuity, an able student for the lessons that will save his life and deliver him from the evil that surrounds him.
Set in Sicily, the novel is timeless: “the story of great retribution… is essentially the same.” Joseph, the putative “lucky” one, a victim of time and place who rises above his circumstances, rejects the brutality of his environment, clinging to the moral clarity that sets him apart from the others. In his naiveté, this boy would be easy fodder for the criminals who temporarily shelter him.
Instead, he draws deeply from the wisdom passed through the ages in this often barren land, the soft whispers of grandmothers whose knowledge is fathomless, eking sustenance from a land that is often unforgiving: “March sits like a knife, bitter winter on one side and spring on the other.” A fable that draws on the best and the worst of mankind, this tale rings with authenticity, the spirit of survival honed on danger, blooming in barren soil.