The Hunger Saint

Written by Olivia Kate Cerrone
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

As late as the 1940s, some desperately poor Sicilian families were consigning their sons to indentured servitude in the sulfur mines. The boys were squeezed into narrow passages, setting dynamite and testing for poisonous gas. Loaded like mules, they hauled ore up to furnaces, their skin and lungs caked with sulfur dust. The work was backbreaking, dangerous, deforming, often fatal. In The Hunger Saint, Olivia Kate Cerrone builds the character of Ntoni (Antonio) from years of meticulous research.

There is no romance of poverty here, and no idealism. Cerrone shows how systemic oppression can coarsen the soul; oppressed miners were often brutally cruel to those younger and even more powerless than they were. Nor does grinding poverty necessarily enhance “family values.” Where survival is a daily struggle, not everyone is “nice.” Cerrone is lucid, precise, often lyrical in describing Ntoni’s world. We see the unique, sometimes savage beauty of the land and feel the relief of cooling breezes and brief pleasures of a late afternoon swim that gave exhausted boys a glimpse of normal childhood. We know the suffocation and terror of the mines, the sink of sulfur and sweat. When Ntoni survives by grit and wiles, keeping his integrity, we rejoice in the resilience and strength of the human spirit.

There is a sometimes gratuitous sprinkling of Italian and Sicilian, and passages can be over-written, but in this slim novella, Cerrone creates a searing portrait of child labor that still entraps millions worldwide. For this reason, as well as its vivid prose and memorable characters, The Hunger Saint is a valuable read.