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Athabasca University

Calabria to Crowsnest: Oliva’s Drowning in Darkness

by Joseph Pivato

Peter Oliva was born in Oregon and raised in Alberta. But his first novel harkens back to his ancestral roots in the Calabria region of southern Italy. It is a region which has poor agricultural land and so for a century people from Calabria have emigrated all over the world in search of work and a better life. Some of these Calabrian men found themselves working in the coal mines of southern Alberta. This is the background to this novel and to the many references to the history and mythology of Calabria. There is, for example, the legend of the apprentice who invented tortellini (62-3).

Photo of mountains in Southern Alberta.

Peter Oliva’s Calabrian grandfather was a coal miner in the mountains of southern Alberta, in an area called the Crowsnest Pass. Oliva’s first novel, Drowning in Darkness (1993), deals with the lives of Calabrian coal miners in this area. The novel recreates the experiences and dreams of two coal miners and one Calabrian woman. The novel gives many details about the dangers of the mine: cave-ins, methane gas, flooding, falls, and disorientation in the darkness. But there is also danger outside the mine. The story is set in the town of Frank which was half buried by a huge rock slide that came down Turtle Mountain in 1903. These dangers are juxtaposed with the history and mythology of Calabria.

The novel opens with Celi lost in the darkness of the mine. While he waits to be rescued he tells the story of Pep and his mysterious wife, Serafina, who is called Sera. Woven into this tale are episodes from their early lives in Calabria, the town of Bagnara and the legends of the Bagnarote, women said to have special powers. We learn that Sera is from the small town of Scilla, near Bagnara. "In Scilla, Sera’s town, the houses were more like bridges than buildings, built next to the sea" (74). The mythic women of Bagnara had special powers:

Everyone in Calabria knew the proverb If you are unlucky you must go to Bagnara. There the women could read the swirls of a man’s future by spilling olive oil into pots of boiling water. (76)

Sera’s grandmother possessed these special powers and, it seems, has passed them on to Sera. Can Sera exercise these powers in this remote mining town in Canada? She has a special understanding of people and gets to know the natural world around the mining town through her long walks. She often thinks of life back in Calabria almost as if the mountain landscape reminds her of her old home.

This novel is an example of combining a mythology of the old world, Calabria, with the strange experiences of immigrants to create a new story, in effect, a new mythology. But there are also many allusions to the poverty in Calabria, the reason why people leave and go so far away, even to work in dangerous coal mines. The central scene in the novel is a cave-in in which 27 men die; many are Italian.

Oliva’s novel supports different theories about the motivations for emigration: culture is as important as economics. Pep attracted Sera to Canada not with economic enticements but with descriptions of the beauty of the flora and fauna. He even included bits of leaves and dried flowers in his letters to her (27). Once in Canada Sera eventually becomes unhappy with Pep because the life of a miner is so ugly. She escapes this ugliness by taking long walks in the surrounding forests and hills, until she eventually disappears.

Pep never gets to know or understand Sera. He keeps thinking about her, and after she leaves him and disappears he begins to wonder if she ever existed or was just one of his dreams in the dark, methane filled mine.

In the mine Celi finds himself talking to a boy working as a bucker called Fina. While they wait for the morning shift to rescue them Celi recalls the life of his friend, Pep Rogolino. But is Fina really there with Celi or is he an hallucination in the dark mine? The story that he tells about Pep has many details and points of view. There are scenes back in Calabria such as Celi’s dream about a giant bird (15). Celi believes in the meaning of dreams. Is this a dream he is having as he sleeps in the dark mine?

Poet Earle Birney once complained that we Canadians are haunted by "our lack of ghosts." As a young country we may lack the long colourful history of other nations like Italy or Spain, but we do have a past, one that has yet to be discovered, created and written about. Drowning in Darkness at times reads like a ghost story. We do not know if Celi’s companion Fina is a ghost of some dead miner. Maybe Celi is already dead down in the mine and speaking as a ghost. But on the surface too there are shadow figures that disappear like ghosts. Are these spirits from the Frank slide? Oliva by combining Calabrian myths and Canadian mountain lore has stretched our history, has give us ghosts to haunt us and tell our stories.

The novel has many references to sleep, dreams, darkness and drowning so that the language creates a rhythm like a ballad or a poem.

While other men may sleep five feet away and are able to walk out on their own legs, the drowned miner just keeps dreaming. Methane enters his nostrils. He rolls into a shallow puddle and drowns in the dark. (88)

Against this ever-present dangers in the mine is the Calabrian history of these people: the hardships, the superstition, the suffering, the emigration, the empty buildings:

He’d averted his to farms, broken buildings and abandoned churches. Most churches were roofless or missing entire walls that had fallen... The remaining churches were more stubborn — despite the earthquakes. (107)

There are references to the Bagnarote women and their powers. Some seem to be witches others are just lucky. The image of Sera becomes associated with these superstitions so that we never really understand her actions or motivations. Why did she stay with Pep? Why did she leave him? Does their Calabrian background shed any light on these questions?

Calabria is the most southerly region of Italy before we reach Sicily. Like other southern regions it has historically been identified with poverty and migration out of Italy. Calabrian men formed a significant part of the great Italian exodus. In the century between 1870 and 1970 almost twenty-six million Italians left their homeland. While many returned, this massive migration qualifies as one of the major diasporas of the modern age. Many of these Calabrian people came to North America and constitute about 30% of all the Italian immigrants in Canada.

In his studies of the literature of Italian emigration Pasquino Crupi has explored the shifting themes of despair and hope among these brutalized people. To demonstrate this flow of population he points out that between 1876 and 1905 Calabria lost one third of its population to emigration. His book on this subject, Un popolo in fuga (1991), is most appropriately titled "The People Who Escape," since Crupi traces the desperate escapes of these people to North and South America (Crupi, 6).

In his book, Intervista sulla Calabria (1985), anthropologist Luigi Lombardi Satriani reviews the reasons for emigration from Calabria:

In the literature on emigration, we find already in the nineteenth century the proponents of the instrumental motivations: one emigrates because it is impossible to live in the economic conditions of Calabria or of other Southern regions. And we find the proponents of the psychological motivations: one emigrates because one wants to emigrate, because one is attracted by other ways of life, because one has enacted an anticipatory socialization with the new models. (46)

So the region of Calabria has a long history of people having to leave in search of a better life. It is ironic that they sometimes find themselves in situations and working conditions that may be worst than those they left behind. That is always a risk with emigration to unknown places. The coal mines of Nova Scotia or southern Alberta had many deaths.

Into this history of escape and entrapment Olive puts his mysterious characters. The novel ends with the rescue party searching deep in the mine and finding the body of Celi, the Calabrian narrator of the story.

Works Cited

Crupi, Pasquino. Un popolo in fuga: Viaggio letterario tra gli emigranti d’Italia del Mezzogiorno della Calabria. Cosenza: Edizioni Scolastiche Pellegrini, 1991.

Loriggio, Francesco. Ed. Social Pluralism and Literary History: The Literature of the Italian Emigration. Toronto: Guernica Editions, 1996.

Lombardi Satriani, Luigi. Intervista sulla Calabria. Con Pasquale Falco. Cosanza: Edizioni Periferia, 1985.

Oliva, Peter. Drowning in Darkness. Dunvegan: Cormorant Books, 1993.

Sturino, Franc. Forging the Chain: Italian Migration to North America 1880-1930. Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1990.

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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