The Hunger Saint is a story of hope and survival set in post-WWII Italy. Hailed by Kirkus as “a well- crafted and affecting literary tale,” this historical novella follows the journey of Ntoni, a twelve-year-old boy forced to labor in Sicily’s sulfur mines to support his family after his father’s untimely death. Faced with life-threatening working conditions, Ntoni must choose between escaping the mines and abandoning his family. As a series of unforeseen events soon complicate his plans, Ntoni realizes that all is not what it seems and to trust anyone might prove to be as fatal as being trapped inside of a cave-in. The Hunger Saint draws from years of historical research and was informed by the oral histories of former miners still living in Sicily today.
From the Seattle Book Review:
In the sulfur mines of Sicily, just a few years after World War II, a teenage boy named Ntoni performs backbreaking labor to pay off a loan given to his family. The work runs in his family: his father was also a sulfur miner until his death, though it isn’t from filial pride that Ntoni takes up this work. It’s from necessity. His brother and sister are too young to work, and his mother must remain at home to take care of them. At an age modern American readers would consider far too young, Ntoni has been forced to take on the responsibility of going into the mines to feed his family.
Ntoni’s story, and that of the other carusi – the name for the children who work in the mines – is based in reality, which only makes it that much harder at times to read. That also makes it a more powerful story. I found myself caught up in the tragedy of loss and hope, of desperation and despair. Cerrone’s writing at once fills the reader’s mind with details of post-World War II Sicily and pulls no punches regarding the struggles the carusi must go through. It is a delicate balance to write richly about a setting but not to use the description to cushion the reader from the harshness of the characters’ lives, but Cerrone manages it deftly.
Most of the time, when I recommend a book, it’s because I have an audience in mind that I know would enjoy reading it. The Hunger Saint, however, is not quite the sort of book that I think people would exactly enjoy. I do, however, think there are people who would want to read it, even though it isn’t a light read to make someone smile. It’s a good read for anyone interested in Sicilian history, for a start, or anyone who finds they gravitate toward books about the plight of the working class. The carusi and the sulfur mines are a part of history that I was unaware of, and if that’s the case for you, then I would deeply recommend this novella.