Soul of the Border: A Novel

Written by Matteo Righetto
Review by Franca Pelaccia

Soul of the Border is set in the late 19th century in the remote village of Nevada, Italy, near the Austrian border. Augusto De Boer grows high-quality tobacco on the steep valley terraces of the Alps as his ancestors have done before him, but his crop is monitored by the Royal Tobacco Company, which underpays Augusto. In order to survive and provide for his family, Augusto puts tobacco aside and smuggles it into Austria through the perilous Alps to avoid customs officers who shoot on sight. In exchange for the tobacco, he gets metal that he sells for food. Three years after taking his fifteen-year-old daughter, Jole, on one such journey so she can learn the “trade,” Augusto disappears. In order to find answers about his disappearance and provide for the impoverished family, Jole undertakes the journey on her own.

Soul of the Border is a complex and beautifully written novel. The writing is sparse and clean but powerful and evocative. It is lyrical, its brief chapters reminding me of poetry. The characters are representative of their condition and time, God-fearing hard workers with no education, but to survive they are stoic and emotionless. They snap into vivid life with descriptive and precise prose. The terrain is harsh, complex, and dangerous, but as vivid as any of the human characters. The terrain is actually a major antagonist, one which needs to be challenged and surmounted, just like other adversaries of the De Boers.

Soul of the Border is compelling and immersive. It illustrates the strength of the human soul as it confronts challenges and evils without question. Jole’s coming-of-age journey is painful but inspirational.