Mary Taylor Simeti came to Sicily in 1962 "from a distinguished family," she tells us, and adds, "I had had a distinguished academic record (Radcliffe) in my own right . . . but somehow I had never discovered what all this promise was thought to portend. In Sicily I sought the space in which to sort out my own expectations from all the others . . ."
She came to work with Danilo Dolci, who was then working with the poor in and around Partinico. There she met Antonio Simeti, fell in love and married. "On Persephone's Island" then becomes the odyssey of this tall young "Americana" who married into a Sicilian bourgeois family, raised her children in Palermo and in their beloved Bosco, a summer place near Alcamo. In telling her story she reflects upon the history, myths and legends that have filtered into the traditions of Sicily and upon the island's problems and pleasures. We see all these with the freshness and amazement of the outsider.
Of course the legend of Persephone is ever present, a legend that ancient Sicily gave to the Greeks of antiquity. Demeter, goddess of grain, the earth mother herself, had a daughter, Persephone, who while gathering flowers in western Sicily was abducted by the god of the underworld. Demeter was so distraught that she prohibited any growth on Earth as long as her daughter was in the underworld. Through the intervention of Zeus a compromise was reached -- Persephone would be shared, six months underground, when nothing would bloom, and six months above ground, when nature would bloom again. And so seasons began.
Mary Taylor Simeti dwells upon the implications of the legend -- filled with symbolism -- for herself and for Sicily. These legends have intermingled with present practices, and the ancient gods are still alive in Sicily. Young women still throw out apples into the street on festival days, if not to some passing Paris, then certainly to see their future husbands pick the apple off the street. There is much about Sicilian festivals, wine making, cooking and food in "On Persephone's Island." How different Sicilian cooking is from Italian cooking.
Simeti takes us to the Cathedral of Palermo, where Frederic II lies buried, and to Monreale, where the sacristan does not permit men or women wearing shorts to enter for fear of offending the stern Byzantine Christ who peers down angrily from above the nave, his black beard and piercing eyes shining out of the golden mosaics.
Simeti does not avoid the dark side of Sicily: the unbearable heat of August, the clannish feuds for power that, at higher levels, are reflected in the Mafia. But she does not dwell on this, for the Sicilian bourgeoisie she has become part of is understandably ashamed of this. Yet she is concerned enough to take part in an anti-Mafia demonstration. She only hints at the difficulties of the expatriate who sees her children losing their "Americanness." How pleased she is when her son returns from a trip to the United States, saying, "I loved everything about America."
Toward the end she finds herself in the curious position of feeling her American identity challenged much as Sicilian immigrants who came to America had their identities challenged.
If there is a flaw in the book it is the long and repetitious descriptions, page after page, of flowers and grasses.
But at the end of the book, one is left with the feeling that Simeti has done a rare thing: She has written a happy book about Sicily and yet there is an undercurrent of sadness, one true to the reality of the island.