Author: Sonia Cancian
Publisher: University of Manitoba Press (through Michigan State University Press)
Book Review by: Sonu Chandiram

This collection of letters between seven Italian couples / family members and their loved ones who left their homeland and migrated to Canada forms the basis of this book, which started out as a dissertation for a PhD in Humanities for the author Sonia Cancian. She was enrolled at the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture at Concordia University in Montreal.

Included in this work are family photos taken in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, underscoring the fact that this book has a very large human component to it.

When the reader reads the letters of those who courageously but confidently left their families in Italy to find economic opportunities in Canada, he or she gets absorbed in their fear and trepidation, their doubts and uncertainties, their desires and hopes.

We empathize with their emotions, wish for their well-being and finally, and when the right time comes (we hope soon) we salute them for their success.

In the meantime, we wonder how the spouse and family members left behind are coping and how they are trying to fill the void, even though just temporarily, left by the one who is in Canada. We even have read of an instance when the wife puts a plate on the dinner table at the place where her husband usually sits.

Even tears can come to the eyes of those readers who feel the wife’s loneliness, and some of us want to tell her to be mentally strong because the two of them will eventually be reunited and the sacrifices of today will lead to happy days of tomorrow.

The letters are really touching. To give you inkling, I present here the beginnings of some of the letters in the Introduction and in each of the four chapters of the book, along with its theme noted below it by the author:

“It was like seeing you here…”

Chapter One
Excuse the errors, I’ writing at night by oil lamp…”
Postwar Italian Migrants and their Letters

Chapter Two
“Even though distance has now kept us apart…”
Kinship across Networks

Chapter Three
“My dear, you will have nothing else to do, but…”
Gender Relations and Dynamics

Chapter Four
“My dearest love…”
Emotions at a Distance

What are some of the themes found in the letters and what feelings of the writers do they express and what needs of theirs do they satisfy? And what about the recipients – what do the letters do to them in terms of their emotions? The author writes:

“In this book, the themes of separation and reunification through the world-making and intimate spaces invoked in the letters are inextricably linked to the practice of letter-writing activated through migration. Letters exchanged in the process of migration created transnational connections that were maintained and sustained both materially and emotionally over time and space through the everyday language of communication – well before our own global times.”

Being that this is an academic study, there are footnotes cited throughout the book. You can refer to the list in the Notes section in the back of the book – some 20 pages of articles, books, oral interviews and other sources are cited. You can also read the author’s comments to gain better understanding of a particular subject matter.

This is a unique study in which Sonia Cancian expertly analyzes the effects of overseas migration on relationships between spouses and family members in terms of feelings and expectations. Its chief value lies in lies in informing readers and what specific roles letters have played in those relationships.

Based on that perspective, it has come up with some unusual conclusions. I urge readers to get the book, read it and see discover what those conclusions are. If you or a family member is living overseas, this is a must-read for both of you.