Elvie, Girl Under Glass tells the poignant story of a child transplanted from a sunny mountain village in Italy to Montreal, Quebec, in 1952.
Raised in a household ruled by a cruel, controlling father, her desire to free herself from his oppression mirrors the French-language majority's battle to wrest control of the province's economic resources from the English-speaking elite.
Unlike some of the separatists who eventually turn violent, Elvie responds to her father's growing strictures by withdrawing deeper into herself. Respite comes from the company of friends and long hours immersed in the thrall of books. Nevertheless, this coping mechanism results in an adult plagued by bouts of depression.
The memoir explores Elvie's experience of growing up by the rules of an Italian household while navigating the French-English divide in Montreal with ease. She learns French on the streets of her lower-working-class neighbourhood and attends school in the English system.
Her efforts to break free of her constricting heritage coincide with the aftermath of Quebec's Revolution of the 1960s and subsequent bloodshed and violence as the French-language majority wrests control of the province's resources from the English elite.
Elvie, Girl Under Glass peeks into one person's heart and soul as she seeks safe harbour.
About the author
I got on a ship with my mother in sunny Naples, Italy in 1952 at the age of 3. We landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and got on a train to Montreal to join my father. I learned French on the city's poorer east-end streets with neighbourhood children, However, like most Italian immigrants at the time, my formal education was entirely in English.
I graduated from Sir George Williams University (since renamed Concordia) with a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1972. The degree equipped me for little other than teaching. But teaching didn't appeal to my sense of adventure so, instead, I took on and left or got fired from a long series of jobs: an invoice clerk in a jewelry factory; a child care worker in a prison for adolescent girls; a magazine production coordinator; a cost accounting clerk; an administrative assistant in a public affairs department, and publications manager for a national business association, among others.
I moved to Toronto in 1983. Six years later, after more dead-end jobs, I found my berth when the Toronto Star hired me as an editorial assistant. Another decade went before the Star promoted me to the job I'd long for - full-fledged reporter. I relished the work and kept at it for the next twelve years.
I left the Star in 2011 to devote myself to writing full-time.
I live in Toronto's Riverdale area with my dog, Jojo.
Excerpt: Elvie, Girl Under Glass (by (author) Elvira Cordileone)
The incident that terrified me occurred between my parents. It was the first of many. When I think of it, I become a child again, a small animal whose instincts scream "Danger!" yet stands helpless.
It happened at home on a Saturday night after we had spent the day with my father's cousin, Guilio, and his family. Mother had put me to bed and when I heard raised voices coming from my parents' bedroom. I lay in the dark, clamping a corner of the blanket between my teeth, hearing my father's menacing growl, my mother's frightened, high-pitched responses.
When my mother cried out in pain I sat up. "Ma!" But the words slipped out too softly for her--or him--to hear. I hadn't forgotten his warning about calling for my mother at night. When she cried out again, I threw my legs over the side of my makeshift bed. My warm feet hit the ice-cold linoleum and, shivering with dread, I tiptoed to parents' room.
Their door stood ajar. I couldn't see them but now I could hear what they said. I stood out of view, trying to build courage to push open the door. I knew I would make my father really mad.
"You were making eyes at Tony, I saw you. You can't deny it," my father said.
"I didn't! I didn't go near him; I didn't even speak to him."
"You didn't have to. I saw the look that passed between you across the room."
My mother's next scream propelled me into their room.
Now more than six decades later, the scene rises from the depths of memory as sharp and fresh as a photograph: my mother perched on the edge of the bed, arms wrapped around her head for protection, my father standing over her, his right arm raised to strike her with a thin metal rod. Weak incandescent light from the ceiling fixture bathed them in a yellowish glow.
"Aiutami, tu, Dio mio. Help me, God," my mother called out.
"Mammaaaaa!" I tasted something bitter and hot on my tongue as I called out.
My father, frozen in mid-strike, turned his head towards the sound of my voice but his eyes had a faraway look.
I was sobbing now, trembling all over and snot running out of my nose, "Mamma."
At once, a light turned on behind my father's eyes. The rod clattered to the floor. My mother ran to my side, scooped me up and carried me back to bed. She lay down beside me and drew over us the weighty wool blankets she'd brought from Italy. In the dark we clung to each other.
"Mamma, let's go back to Campochiaro."
She hugged me closer. "Go to sleep, honey."
I heard my father crying in the other room. What did he have to cry about, I wondered? He was the one who'd been bad.