Caterina Edwards’ latest book, Finding Rosa: A Mother with Alzheimer’s, a Daughter in Search of the Past (Greystone Books, Douglas & McIntyre, 2008, 304 pages), is the best story out of Western Canada this year. It has mystery, history, memory, nostalgia, conflict and love – a work of creative non-fiction so powerfully written that it is difficult to put down. The book combines three storylines: the turbulent life of Caterina’s mother, Rosa, from World War I to 2001; the reconstructed history of the Italian refugees from Istria who lost their country at the end of World War II and were exiled all over the world; and the story of Caterina’s troubled relationship with her mother.
Rosa Pagan had always been a difficult person to live with. In the last four years of her life, however, she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and became impossible to care for. Nevertheless, Caterina, husband Marco and their two daughters cared for this woman at home, as she began to forget all her long history, and the story of her family and people.
As a university student, the author had taken many trips back to Venice to visit her mother’s remaining family. She was always troubled by unanswered questions. What had happened to her grandfather and why did the family leave Lussino? Edwards began this book as a project on the history of Istria. She found that the years of research and trips back to Italy gradually helped her to better understand her mother and her family’s troubled past. She also found that she could not write on Istria without writing about her mother.
In this book we see how European history becomes personal, leaving scars for later generations. Not only were Caterina and Marco affected by events in Istria, but so were their children. I could identify with this, as my own uncle, Janni Sabucco, was forced to leave the city of Fiume, Istria, in 1948.
In creating, or recreating, the very memorable character of her mother, Edwards may have also come to better understand herself and her own history in Italy and Canada. Readers will be enthralled by the realism and emotion of this journey of discovery.
We also learn about the buried history of hundreds of forgotten exiles, abandoned by fellow Italians. Istria became part of Croatia after World War II. And, as we know, there is still no secure peace in the former Yugoslavia. Rosa Pagan’s Alzheimer’s becomes a metaphor for the amnesia of political leaders of our own day, who seem to have forgotten the evils of war. Every page of this book resonates with the history we have witnessed and with images similar to those we are witnessing in the troubled spots around the world: “My city does not conform to any actual Istrian city. It is a sequence of images and apprehensions that remains fixed in my mind. Over 85 percent of the population of the coastal cities did leave during the exodus. Capodistria, Rovigno, Pola, Zara, Parenzo, and Fiume, as they had been disappeared.”
When you visit cities like Trieste or Udine in Friuli, you are reminded of a missing past. The story of the Italian Istrians is fragmented and forgotten. Records in the Dalmatian cities and towns were destroyed by Tito’s troops. Edwards had to contact Istrian exiles in Edmonton, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and New York, as well as Australia, Italy, and other distant places.
This is a story of people who have disappeared which needed to be told, and Caterina Edwards has rescued them from oblivion.
She ends her journey on a small hopeful note: “Her people were scattered to the four corners of the earth. And the culture – the last embers glowed in a club in Sydney, flickered in a restaurant in Long Island, flared bright in a kitchen in Seattle. And on the Istrianet Web…”
Joseph Pivato is professor of literature at Athabasca University in Edmonton. He is the editor of Caterina Edwards: Essays on Her Works (Guernica, 2000). He has published five books on Italian-Canadian writers.
First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 16.