When Jessica Kluthe met her great-great-grandmother, Rosina, for the first time, it was standing above her grave in Calabria, Italy. The woman had been dead long before Kluthe was even born, yet the moment hit Kluthe with a grief reserved for those who had grown up in each others’ lives — the Victoria author had, after all, spent the last four years fully enmeshed with Rosina, and recently bore her new book out of the experience.
Rosina, the Midwife traces the historic roots of a family leaving the south of Italy to come to Canada. Yet it is Rosina, a Calabrian matriarch, who became the only one to remain in Italy after the mass migration of the 1950s — a time when millions of Italians left their homeland in search of work. With no formal training, but plenty of experience, Rosina worked alone as a midwife in an area where there was only one doctor to serve three villages. She was given the tools needed to deliver and baptize babies, and, over the course of her long career, helped bring hundreds of infants into the world.
“I hope that Rosina’s story can shed light on all the women’s stories in that era that are just as rich, and so often have gone untold,” says Kluthe, who started the creative non-fiction book as her graduate thesis in UVic’s Masters of Writing program. “So many Canadians do have an immigrant history, and when you look back and see the connections there is this universal element to leaving a place forever and staring over.”
The story opens with Kluthe first stumbling upon a photo of Rosina she finds in a pile of old boxes long stored away under a stairwell of her parents’ house. She knows only vague things about the woman yet, as the story unfolds into Kluthe’s own intimate connection, finding out more becomes urgently important.
“One of the most frustrating things that I never expected was that everything was different when I got there [to Calabria]. I had all these images in my head and in the story that I’d constructed, but a lot of the reality wasn’t like that,” she says. “Then, we couldn’t get into the actual house that Rosina lived in, which really upset me at the time. What was funny, was that through imagination and story I could inhabit the place in a way that, being there, I couldn’t.”
Kluthe says the moment that hit her hardest was seeing Rosina’s grave.
“The documents that attest to our existence are very reductive,” says Kluthe. “‘This woman lived and died here’ doesn’t even start to sum up those who were impacted by her hands, the people she helped, the lives she birthed. Story is the place to fill that in.”
Along with Kluthe’s own journey, Rosina, the Midwife displays the drama her entire ancestral family dealt with at the time: great-grandfather, Generoso, labouring through the harsh Edmonton winter to save enough money to buy passage to Canada for his wife and children; grandmother, Rose, huddled in a third-class cabin, sick from the motion of the boat; and Rosina, forced to say goodbye, one by one, to the people she loved.
Despite the separation of place and time, Kluthe manages to deliver a glowing piece of history, swaddled in poetic grace and raw with newly birthed emotion.
“While we seem to be a new country, we all come from ancient places,” Kluthe says. “It’s a true gift to explore that.” M
Find Rosina, the Midwife now at all major bookstores through Brindle & Glass Publishing Ltd., 216 pages, paperback, $19.95; or on e-book for $14.99.