Wednesday, August 5, 2015

MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW: "WRESTLING WITH THE DEVIL": Like finding an agate among river rocks. (Italian American Immigrant Memoir beats out the competition.)

Wrestling with the Devil
(A Story of Sacrifice, Survival and Triumph from the Hills of Naples to the Hall of Fame)

Antonio Russo and Tonya Russo Hamilton (Author Website)
Gemelli Press

9600 Stone Ave North
Seattle, WA 98103
Italian American Immigrant Memoir
ISBN 978-0982-102398 (Hard Cover) $28.95  (Paperback) $19.95

ASIN: B008EWZ0TW (Kindle) 

Marlan Warren, Reviewer for Midwest Book Review (Aug. 2015 Reviewer's Choice)

“I had an outlet for my demons.”
--Antonio Russo, “Wrestling with the Devil”

Wrestling with the Devil (A Story of Sacrifice, Survival and Triumph from the Hills of Naples to the Hall of Fame)” by Antonio Russo and Tonya Russo Hamilton takes readers along the simple-but-not-easy path that Russo took to Honor and the fulfillment of his Destiny. The father-daughter authors give a rare "insider" view of Italian immigrant experience and one determined man's journey from his cozy Neapolitan childhood to his “Italian American Graffiti-meets-Rebel Without a Cause" adolescence in Portland, Oregon to his rather miraculous college wrestling scholarship and finally, to Russo’s successful coaching career and induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.

We are treated to a slice-of-Italian-American-Life in the 50s and 60s with all the warmth and family confusion, goodwill, great food and "immigrant drive for success" that such a cultural experience often entails. What adds to this memoir's tenderness and heart, and sets it apart, is the equally touching fact that although it is told in First Person, it is actually written by Russo's daughter, Tonya Russo Hamilton, who has spun a compelling, seamless narrative in her father's voice from what must have been hours and hours of taped anecdotes.

Hamilton and her father deliver an honestly told story of a 10-year old Neapolitan boy who gets the shock of his life when his parents suddenly put him on a boat to New York for a "better life," ripping him away from their idyllic but poor world. The post-traumatic stress of "abandonment" eats away at Antonio for the rest of his life, and bedevils him. His parents and siblings eventually do join him, but by then he has had to deal with being shuttled from one relative's home to another after enduring a horrific voyage and arriving as a foreigner in the U.S.A. with no English.

Antonio Russo: First coaching position.

Russo's demons stay with him for a lifetime, and might have led to self-destruction rather than self-construction had it not been for his strong will to succeed and exorcise the "devil" within through pursuit of his chosen passion: wrestling. After dabbling in some teenage pranks that verge on juvenile delinquency, he finally comes to a crossroads that forces him to find his moral compass.

I enjoyed the humor, especially in his loving portrait of his mother, an awesome cook who would tell her children to "go play in the street," and who wished for her son what all mothers wish: that he get a good job, get married and give her grandkids. Russo is fair in his portrayal of his siblings who also faced challenges similar to his own. His sister fared the worst and here the writing offers this poetic gem:

“Catching a glimpse of her smiling was like finding an agate among river rocks.”

Reading “Wrestling with the Devil” was like finding an agate among river rocks. An unexpected jewel amid a literary landscape that has brought us so many exaggerated or negative views of Italian life in America.

Antonio Russo at the head of the table.


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