Elisa Bartone's Peppe the Lamplighter
illustrated by Ted Lewin
Children's book review by Steve Barancik
Lighting the night in Little Italy
In a time before streetlights were electric, young Peppe lives in a tenement in New York's Little Italy with seven sisters and his ailing father. His mother has passed. Peppe feels it's incumbent upon him to find work to help support the family.
He fails to find work at the butcher's, the bar, even the cigar maker's. Word of his search, though, reaches Domenico, the lamplighter, about to leave for Italy to bring back his wife. He offers Peppe the job, temporarily, and Peppe jumps at it.
This sweet boy takes to his new work, imagining each lamp he lights as "a small flame of promise for the future." He even says a small prayer for each of his family members as he lights each lamp.
Peppe's old school father, however, is unimpressed with Peppe's new employ. Angry, perhaps, at his own inability to provide properly for his family, he takes it out on Peppe, who, despite the kind words of his sisters, internalizes his father's abuse.
(Yes, I'm going to call it "abuse." I won't be the first.)
"It's a stupid job," [Peppe] said to himself. And he began to imagine that the people of the neighborhood laughed behind his back.
Peppe the Lamplighter
Comes a night when Peppe can't bring himself to light the lamps for the shame and the joy that's been wrung out of his employ. And it's on that night that Assunta, Peppe's youngest sister, fails to return home from school.
That proves a turning point, not only for Peppe, but for his father. A turning point for the better. At his father's urging, Peppe lights the lamps and finds Assunta, who was too scared to come home in the dark.
Illustrator Lewin earned a 1994 Caldecott Honor for his artistic efforts here. His pictures of daylight and electrically lit scenes seem purposefully overexposed, leaving the lamplit scenes rich with color (and meaning) to emphasize the importance of Peppe's work, his father's objections aside. (Review continues.)
Peppe the Lamplighter is a strong effort highly focused on the Italian immigrant experience, as well as a smaller story featuring a child who is right and a parent who is wrong. Not an entirely pleasant read, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
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