Book review | From Evanston to Italy: Long-time educator explores her legacy

Linda Gent Johnson, for years a teacher in Evanston (in Dewey), principal (in Orrington) and music teacher, decided at the age of 44 to immerse herself in her Italian origins.

She recently wrote about the experience of learning Italian, getting to know her Italian parents and ultimately buying and repairing a house in Umbria.

“Il Girasole: Summers in Umbria” is a collection of carefully focused essays, as well as photos, paintings by Johnson and illustrations by Barbara Ruiz. The special design of the book makes it a warm and welcoming family story, as well as a beautiful personal travelogue and description of the villages and culture of Umbria.

As Johnson points out in the prologue, his intention is to pair the history of his mother’s family when she immigrated to Illinois in the early 20th century with the more recent history of her family’s involvement in Umbrian traditions and his relatives who still live there.

“Girasole” is the Italian word for “sunflower”, and Johnson includes photos of vast fields of girasoli that “light up the Umbrian landscape”. Umbria is the only landlocked region in Italy, “a region of vineyards and grain, cheese and honey, pigs and sheep, forests and streams”. Johnson helpfully includes a hand-drawn map showing the Via Flaminia and the Tiber meandering north and south through the region.

Clips from the diaries of Johnson and those close to her are indeed dotted throughout the family story she tells. The reasons for his mother’s family emigrating from the village of Purello (population in 2021: 622) to Umbria were simple: “There was little food. There was nothing to make life comfortable. She quotes from her uncle Merino’s diary: “To illustrate how poor the family was… when he was little and told his mother he was hungry, she replied” go out and pick garlic and eat that “, what he would do. to do.”

His maternal grandfather, Costantino, who first crossed the ocean in 1901, worked for a time as a coal miner in the coal mines of central and southern Illinois, held jobs. secondary such as digging wells and eventually worked for the State of Illinois as a road builder. He’s been illiterate his whole life.

Johnson’s mother (also Linda), who was born in central Illinois, moved with her family to Italy in 1922. The family then returned to Illinois in 1923 because the fascists had come to power and that his grandparents were worried about Johnson’s uncle Domenic enlisting.

The carefully chosen subjects of Johnson’s essays range from erratic train service to religious and holiday celebrations, the grape harvest, his garden, and a difficult descent into a cave system to attend a mass at Monte Cucco. In the last essay, she recounts a visit to the local cemetery, where she recognizes many names and photos (which are usually included in Italian cemeteries). “With all this information and so many photographs, I can certainly fill in a lot of blanks. I am beginning to feel my place in the continuum of generations.

Johnson obviously enjoys the culinary and gardening aspects of his Italian heritage and his visits to Umbria. Many family reunions are featured, along with their mouthwatering menus. In various ways, Johnson continually praises the “color and crunch of fresh produce” from nearby gardens and markets and emphasizes the fun of learning Italian cooking techniques from family and friends, then cooking. for them.

She appreciates the tradition of “Pranzo” (from the Latin “Prandium” or “first meal”) which is the main meal of the day (nine courses, in some cases). “We want to give our full attention to every dish that is offered to us, so that long conversations and photoshoots mostly take place between courses,” she says of that meal. The rhythm of the day allows for long meals. “This is what the Italians have been doing for hundreds of years and what they will continue to do,” she adds.

It includes a survey of influential Italian cookbooks, the oldest dating from 1470 AD.

Author Linda Gent Johnson and her husband Vins are seen atop Monte Cucco in the Umbria region of Italy in 2019. (Johnson family photo)

The house Johnson bought in 2003 (his original goal was to buy “something small with a balcony or patio just big enough for a tomato plant”) immediately seemed comfortable to him. “This is the feeling I had the first time I walked into my home in Evanston. I believe houses have personality and spirit, and I certainly feel in tune with that, ”she writes. They paint the exterior of the house “a soft yellow” and name it “Il Girasole”.

Johnson’s husband Vins, an avid jazz saxophonist and biker, makes several appearances in the book as they work together on renovating their new home and travel the area together. For a July 4th celebration, Wines is back in the kitchen to make a potato salad from an old family recipe from central Illinois. With that, they serve local pork ribs with Hecky’s barbecue sauce, cooked on a Weber grill brought with them on an American Airlines flight. Although Vins has no connection with Italy, she says, “he found his rhythm in Umbria with his fellow musicians and his bicycle”.

Johnson’s children and grandchildren make appearances as they begin to live and enjoy their summers in Umbria. Johnson obviously loved introducing them to Italian traditions.

The warmth, richness, and simplicity of the book are due to Johnson’s careful journaling each summer, as well as her proper historical research which gives broader contexts to many of the experiences she describes.

When asked if she would continue to write about Umbria, she replied: “I already have enough material for at least two more books. There are so many wonderful things to see and do in Umbria. ”

Il Girasole is available on Bookends and beginnings, Evanston does or the author.

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