In an interview made for TerraFemina, Luca Di Fulvio declared “in my personal ideal of love, there is a principle of purity […] I know that I write about love stories between young characters, that’s why their relationships are purer.[i]” In his best-seller The Boy Who Granted Dreams, the Italian writers dives into the 1920s New-York to depict the coming-of-age of Christmas Luminita, son of an Italian emigrant living in the ghetto of Brooklyn. In a world where poverty and wealth coexist some few blocks away from each other, gangs and violence are as real as the fur sold on Park Avenue.
Imagine a time travel in the New World, its golden age and its illusions and you have the set of the novel. This is full of hopes for a new life that Cetta Luminita leaves Italy, promised to a greater destiny in the United States of America. The reader witnesses along the novel the upbringing of her son Christmas, torn between his craving for power and his tumultuous love story with the wealthy Ruth. His daily life of shows the reader the struggle between poverty and integrity, wealth and corruption. On his life path, he can count on his best friend Santo Filesi to have his back even after he goes through the darkness of gangster’s life, but he especially has the support of his mom. Cetta, as well as Ruth Isaacson, Christmas’ great love, are keystone in the development of the main character as they follow him throughout the novel.
It would be easy to say that Ruth’s importance is given by her role in Christmas’ life for he’s willing to apply himself and make the best of himself to be worthy of the young girl’s love, but she’s not just the reason, she’s the trigger. That is to say, she is not just the girl he wants to get, she is the girl he wants to be worthy of. A bit of context would help here.
Indeed, Ruth and Christmas meet after she has been raped and deprived of a finger by the gardener. “hero” fits the bill here for the main character as he brings her to the hospital after founding her on the top of a hill saving her life. This romantic rescue could imply a happily ever after for both of them, but the trauma imposed by the rape forced Ruth to reject her savor, pushing him to deserve her love and her attention.
Seeking her love leads him to seeking respect from his family at first. As he tries to become a better man, to get out of the vicious circle of poverty and criminality, he decides to get a real job and finds his path at a radio station. Actually, the reason why he is fighting to speak to the entire country is to have a chance to be heard by the love of his life. Thanks to Ruth, he has the guts to start a new pirate radio-station to defy the main concurrent from which he has been fired. Moreover, she challenges his vision of love by changing the development of their relationship into a game of hide and seek somehow. Indeed, as she leaves for Los Angeles, she is resigned and decides to give up on their relationship but still hopes deep down to find him back. Her influence on Christmas is not to be underestimated for she is key to his development, and Di Fulvio puts forward this female character as a bridge head between Christmas’ success and his misery.
Cetta Luminita, as the second leading female character of the novel is, in my eyes, the real protagonist of The Boy Who Granted Dreams and actually a more exciting character. In addition to shaping Christmas’ personality, giving him values to stick on, and raising him up the best she can although she has no money, Cetta is key in the book for she is a landmark to her son. He perpetual presence in his life guides him through his darkest periods. She is present throughout the novel, as it starts with the account of her rape and the structure of the book includes chapters focus on her arrival in the USA, her evolution and her rebirth in a country where she is to become what she wants. Well, the latter might just be an illusion for the Italian emigrant for she is denied the right to the American Dream and becomes a prostitute, classic turn out for a ‘20s immigrant woman who could not speak a word of English. However, prostitution turns out to be her only way to regain control over her body, for she then has the right to decide whether she allows a man to take possession of her or not, a situation which seems absurd but would actually makes sense for a woman who was raped. Indeed, after such a loss of dignity and self-love, she succeeds in overcoming the trauma and uses consensual sex as a way to recover from her sexual assault. She discovers the harshness of life on the other side of the Atlantic and founds out that the American Dream she has been sold was all illusion. She struggles to get over poverty but has her own version of the success when she is finally able to get a place with two separated rooms and a job as a waitress which takes her out of prostitution. Focusing of Cetta implies seeing the reverse of the society, the underdogs, the unbeloved ones. As a poor Italian woman, she is to suffer both discrimination and sexism, but her strength is to survive through the challenges imposed on her by Brooklyn and she never loses her integrity nor her dignity.
These values she transmits to her son by being an example, a model of respect. For Di Fulvio, being a prostitute is a laudable when your motives are good and sane and is not used as a way of blemishing her character. As she seeks to give the best to her son, she does not deserve to be insulted by little boys as do some at Christmas’ school. Indeed, the sacrifice she makes of selling her body in order to provide a roof and some food to her son is highly respectable. Not only those middle school kids embody the values of their parents, thus the majority of the ‘20s American society (that is a close-minded middle-class made out of American conservatives), but they also show the reader how prostitutes were lacking respect for even kids, who by the way did not really know anything about life, were allowed such strong judgements on people, according to their jobs. Cetta stands as a strong figure, she never lets down her son nor stops to fight for him. More than a mom, more than a woman, she is a hero in the development of Christmas.
Moreover, she is the one giving an identity to Natale (the Italian name of Christmas). This isn’t only by giving him birth, or by naming him, this is the transmission of values that he will stick on that she significantly shapes his identity. One can note here the choice of name, “Natale” / “Christmas”: the baby was seen as a present from God, issued from a rape indeed, but still a present in her life, her open-door to a brighter future. She furthermore accepts his name to be anglicized for his integration to be easier, even though she isn’t able to pronounce it properly as it shown in the first couple of chapters in a discussion with Tonio and Vita when the couple underline her that she’s unable to say her child’s name. At first, she learns basic English in order to do her job, and focus on the education of Christmas, speaking to him only in English and saying to him from day one that he is American not Italian. This insistence on Americanness foster the successful career of the young Christmas for his ability to talk, convince, narrate random stories and coax comes from the fact that he is confident enough to claim being American in a country where everyone is an emigrant, in an era of civil uncertainty and identity chaos. It’s important to point out that success comes from trust and trust has Christmas, especially in himself, mainly thanks to his brought up.
Finally, Cetta gives Christmas faith, not specifically in religion, but in humanity. Although she has had life stained by a sexual abuse, violence, racism, rejection, and even imprisonment, she keeps her head up and never accepts failure, especially when it comes to her son. Indeed, after the departure of Ruth and the downfall of Christmas, when he decides to be implicated in some gangsters’ game and tricks, Cetta is the only one seeking the good within him by having his back no matter what mistakes he does. Indeed, after the death of Ruth’s grand-father, her parents decide to move to LA, leaving the boy devastated and more lonely as ever. To fill the blank left by the departure of the love of his life, he got caught up in some gangsters nasty business and starts to got some shady money that his mom doesn’t accept, he then witnesses a murder and got an “epiphany” (kind of) and decides to give up on the business and the gang when her mom makes him go back down to earth. The highly symbolic brown suit (so reminiscent of the lower classes, made out of wool and not silk) is then given to him by his Cetta as a reminder of who he is, allowing him to get out of the vicious circle of easy money and bloodily gained respect.
Reading The Boy Who Wranted Dreams demonstrates to us that women are often key in the development of male protagonists. It is an important reminder that each of them deserves respect, from prostitute to business women, that no matter what you’ve been through, life is to be seen at the end of the tunnel. Cetta and Ruth are keystone of the novel for their contribution in Christmas’ development, both of the character and of his personality. As the mother stands a model to follow for her son, the lover is the trigger of all Christmas’ most laudable action. This novel is not only a masterpiece for its plot and its style of writing, its universality and ability to touch everyone makes it a classic.
[i] Interview of Luca Di Fulvio by the Magazine TerraFemina (http://www.terrafemina.com/article/luca-di-fulvio-rencontre-a-l-italienne-avec-l-auteur-du-gang-des-reves_a330569/1 )