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Salvatore J. LaGumina, The Great Earthquake, America Comes to Messina’s Rescue. Youngstown, New York: Teneo Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Frank J. Cavaioli
Farmingdale State, SUNY (emeritus)

Salvatore J. LaGumina, author of 18 books on ethnic and Italian American Studies, has chronicled the tragic earthquake and subsequent tidal wave that devastated Messina and overwhelmed both Sicily and Calabria, killing upwards of 200,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. The natural catastrophe, one of the worst in the world and the worst in European history, occurred at 5:20 a.m., December 28, 1908, a time when the American Great White Fleet was touring the world to demonstrate the United States’ rise to power. As this American navy was approaching the Mediterranean region, President Theodore Roosevelt, with the support of Congress, ordered the ships to participate in earthquake rescue operations. Roosevelt boldly asserted that the United States, indeed the world, owed much to Italy for its contributions to civilization. More than 40 other nations provided help to Italy. LaGumina points out that in times of profound tragedy, “people are inclined to extend themselves beyond the limitations of national, ethnic, racial, and religious, and political borders” (p. 220).

Probing American and Italian archives, Professor LaGumina has provided a first-hand account of the suffering and the events surrounding the tragedy. He analyzes the reactions to the Messina earthquake by the Giolitti government of Italy, the royal family, the Italian military, Americans who were visiting Italy, and Italian-Americans who had relatives and friends living in the old country. The Catholic Church in Italy and the United States, Protestants, Jews, Italian-American and non-Italian organizations stepped forward in fund raising to send aid. He describes the humanitarian work of two visiting American women, Katherine Davis, a leader in the prison reform movement, and Alice Fitzgerald, an American nurse, both of whom remained in Italy, instead of returning home as most did, to tend to the sick and injured.

The Great Earthquake serves as the background during a period of mass movement of migrants when more than 2,045,000 Italians arrived in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. Some recent Italian immigrants returned home to learn whether their relatives had survived or perished. Simultaneously, some Italians were forced to leave Italy because they had lost everything in the earthquake.

The volume contains 29 photographs of the disaster that appropriately reinforce the text. The Foreword is written by Richard Greco, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 2004 to 2006. Greco expressed gratification that the earthquake story could be told, because his grandparents came from Sicily and Calabria.

Professor LaGumina offers an insightful comparison with Hurricane Katrina, the natural disaster that hit New Orleans in 2005. Much criticism was directed at the American government’s response to this event. In contrast, the American government’s response to the Messina earthquake was remarkably quick and effective.

The Great Earthquake is a major contribution to the growing library of Italian-American history. The author, Salvatore J. LaGumina, is a founder of the American Italian Historical Association, and he continues to promote a greater understanding of the Italian American experience.

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