Russell Shorto, the author, is not to be confused with his grandfather, Russell Shorto, the Smalltime Mafioso who was the No. 2 man in the small steel mill town of Johnstown between 1946 through 1960. This is the elder Shorto’s story. But more interesting, it is also the story of how and why the mafia evolved in Sicily and then moved around the world.
Shortly after the American Civil War, Sicilians were starving at home. The US Southern states needed workers to replace their former slaves at cut-rate prices. The Sicilians, who were always a practical lot, jumped on the chance to not watch their families slowly die.
“More than 100,000 young Sicilian men went to Louisiana. They worked the sugarcane alongside black sharecroppers or took the places that former slaves had abandoned […] They became objects of degradation and disdain to white Louisianans and far beyond. The eleven men who were hanged in the largest mass lynching in American history—in New Orleans in 1891—were not black but Italian.“
However, Shorto’s ancestors went a different route. His great-grandfather worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, which paid considerably better. $5 a day. Voyages from Sicily to America cost only $10 so it was easy for him to bring his lover to be with him in America. They soon had nine children including the elder Russell. With prohibition right around the corner, the Italian mafia was perched to make its move into money, power, and respect.
Smalltime starts out really slow with the story of the elder Russell’s last few days working for the mob. A killing is foreshadowed and then there is look back into the history of the mafia and Sicily. Usually the opening story is enthralling and then you are forced to slog through the history. However, in this book, the history made for some intriguing and compelling reading. I found it much more interesting than the memoir. Perhaps this occurred because the author has written many narrative histories before. Regardless, if you want to read a “from the bottom to the top” immigration narrative filled with dreams and aspirations, you must read Smalltime. 4 stars!
Thanks to W.W. Norton & Company and NetGalley for a copy in exchange for my honest review.