Stones of Sicily

The Stone Boudoir
Book Cover

The Stone Boudoir

Travels Through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

Theresa Maggio

Perseus Publishing, 2002

ISBN  0-7382-0342-4

246 pages  $25.00

Reviewed by  Peat O’Neil

Theresa Maggio is a story teller.  New Jersey born, the author is of Sicilian heritage and has lived in Sicily off and on for a considerable time, researching Mattanza, her book about tuna fishing.  In this book, she returned to explore Sicily’s mountain villages.

Maggio steps behind the shuttered facades of crumbling Sicilian hill towns.  Behind the gates and stone walls there’s vibrant culture and the ebb and flow of family life.  Some women she meets are drowning in it, other women are thriving on the challenges of building professional careers as pharmacists or architects in a quixotic culture rooted in fidelity to feudal hierarchies and long dead saints..

The chapters describing her several visits to Santa Margherita form an image of stone  everywhere – the houses, cool cellars, stone barns, caves where wine and food are stored.  Also the embedded-in-granite way the women can be entombed alive, apparently willingly, in service to the family.  Nella in the village never married, certain that “men just want a slave.”   But she cares for her aunt full time and is a housewife in every way, though in a female household.

The writing is clear and straightforward. Maggio was previously a science writer and does not waste a reader’s time in self-indulgent digression. But if the narrative is lean, the telling is rooted in poetry and human emotion.  By chapter three, you’re a member of the family peering over her shoulder at a plate of pasta while an older relative urges you to eat more.  We’re back  in the old country, in the remote hill towns where families gather for meals, unmarried adult children live with their parents and a biggest party is a saint’s feast day.

Maggio befriends many Sicilians during the course of her several visits — architects, pharmacists, artisans, café owners and farmers.  The writing shines when she’s describing the landscape and the people.  “We ascended past olive groves, hazelnut trees, and almond and pear orchards in bloom.  We saw the deep-wrinkled necks of older farmers in straw hats who hacked at the soil between trees. March is the season for cultivation in the mountains of Sicily, before the sun gets too hot in April.  I stuck my heard out the window and sniffed the air.  Up here it was chilled champagne.”

If you look hard enough there are cooking recipes in the narrative  “She added chopped walnuts and parsley to the veal and wrapped the mixture in triangular patches of pounded turkey cutlets.  She poked holes in these and inserted tiny cubes of ham, then tied each packet up with string, ready for the frying pan.”

And instructions for making the polished stone mosaics “A pile of semiprecious stones ground flat and thin as crackers lay in the sunlight on the work table, their frosted colors full of promise: matte turquoise, lapis lazuli, … The stones interlocked like a jigsaw puzzle in a marble slab chiseled to hold them.  Later he would polish the stone painting.”

The festival to St. Agatha in Catania in the shadow of Mt. Etna might be the high point in the narrative.  “Every year on February 4 and 5, the men of Catania pull her relics, housed in bejeweled life-sized effigy, through the city’s streets for two days and two nights, the duration of her martyrdom.  It is said to be the second largest religious procession in the world..  Half of the women here are named after her, but it is really a feast for the men, who have claimed the girl saint for their own.”

I hated to finish this superb book with characters fully sketched in their setting and scenes so real that even a reader who has never been to Sicily can absorb the way of life.  I have traveled in Sicily by car, thumb, bus and train.  It’s a wonderful place for the voyager with a knack for connecting with people and enjoying life.

Book review by L. Peat O’Neil, author of Pyrenees Pilgrimage and teaches writing for The Writer’s Center and UCLA.

Travel in Sicily Resources


Montana Surrounds Him

Montana Surround

Land, Water, Nature and Place

By: Phil Condon

Johnson Books, Boulder, Co.

2004, 192 pages

ISBN 1-55566-354-0

$15.00 paperback

Mixed in with this memoir of growing up and moving out, of coming back and forging bonds of place, the author deals with big issues like the relationships between people and land, animals and each other.

Condon teaches in the graduate program of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, and the University sponsors an Environmental Writing Institute in Missoula.  He’s knit together the threads of his life that range through Nebraska, California, Missouri, British Columbia and Montana.  He uses the stark memories of his past to ponder the present.

From a session of work in a meat slaughter packing plant, Condon examines his choices and intentions.  He muses that he still eats meat and enjoys it, yet resolves to slow his actions to include due process and consideration when he is consuming meat. How cash has disappeared from the equation of purchase.

Not a sentimentalist, he admits to tree cutting (for heat during a bitter winter in British Columbia) as well as tree hugging and planting.  Condon doesn’t shy from tough facts:    toxic industrial pollutants and pesticides used in agriculture are found everywhere on the planet.  There are no pristine places.

A man enchanted with real snow, Condon likes winter because “it slows down most things modern and mechanistic… and I like snow because it covers everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  To me, it’s always seemed the coldest, cleanest grace.”

The domed snow-scapes that some people collect are a metaphor for life on earth.  His first wife, with whom he homesteaded in the Ozarks, worries that they’re living inside “one of those snowy paperweights…idyllic from the outside, but if we start looking past each other, through each other, there’s nothing to keep us from becoming invisible…” (p. 15)

Condon mentions a fortune telling ball, “a heavy glass sphere, flattened on both ends and wrapped in gold-colored foil.  The glass opened on a murky maroon interior. You’d ask a question and shake it, and one of twelve stock answers would rise to the top.”  (p. 175)

He writes: “Pick up the snow scene in its small round globe of glass.  Shake it and smile.  Watch the show settle and the scene change.  It’s fun to do the shaking.  And it’s also fun to imagine being one of the figures.  The truth is that, to a greater or lesser degree, we’ve always been both the shaker and the shaken.  And now, if we never have before, we know it.” (p. 141)

by L. Peat O’Neil

 This review appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, a wonderful book paper. Subscribe!

Pyrenees Travel Guide Books

Pyrenees Pilgrimage

L Peat O’Neil

Amazon BookSurge Publications, 2010 – Kindle and Print on Demand

Solo walk across France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean

through the Pyrenees Piedmont.

Walks and Climbs in the Pyrenees
Kev Reynolds
Cicerone Press, 2001
Detailed guide for serious backpackers.

Trekking in the Pyrenees
Douglas Streatfeild-James
Trailblazer, 3rd edition, 2005
Friendly tone and easy-going route makes this a good guide for the first timer.

This is the book I used on my trek.

The Cloud Garden

The Cloud Garden
Book Cover

The Cloud Garden

A True Story of Adventure, Survival, and Extreme Horticulture

Tom Hart Dyke and Paul Winder

Lyons Press, 2004

ISBN 1-59228-430-2

Cloth, 323 pages, with 2 maps


Attracted by the remoteness of the Darién Gap on the Isthmus of Panama and motivated the possibility of collecting undiscovered orchid specimens, an English botanist named Tom Hart Dyke set off to cross this dangerous patch of jungle connecting Panama to Columbia at the top of South America.  Along the way, in Mexico, he hooked up with an English backpacker, Paul Winder. Dyke was out to discover new orchid species, or at least see as many unusual orchids as he could find. Winder, who had traveled widely between money-earning stints London’s financial district, was keen to explore the famously dangerous Darién Gap.

They head off on foot into the jungle, somewhat haphazardly, occasionally engaging guides, telling people of their plans. Unprepared for the rigors of the terrain — it’s not clear whether they even had proper maps — the men were soon snagged by a group of guerrillas, an off-shoot of the FARC.  The guerrillas saw them as bait for ransom and moved them from camp to camp.  New guards would join and others would leave during the ensuing nine months.

The strangely compelling narrative is told from alternative points of view — Tom then Paul, or Paul then Tom.  The authors, or an editor, have decently shaped what could have been repetitious scenes and each writer presents a different perspective on the events during captivity.  At times, the story devolves to a portrait of idiocy, ignorance and machismo blunders on all sides.  And machismo knows no gender; many of the guerrilla thugs were female.

The guerrillas fought amongst themselves and ultimately weren’t able to reach the men’s families, or anyone on the outside to relay the ransom request. As time passed, their families made inquiries through non-government organizations active in the region, which through the informal communications network must have exerted indirect pressure on the guerrillas to release the men. The Englishmen were a bit thick to have stumbled on purpose into the Darién in the first place, one of the most dangerous places on the planet.  Surely they knew what they were getting into.

Still, the story moves along and I found myself wondering how I’d respond to similar hardship.  These fellows were resourceful, keeping their spirits up through a variety of word games, garden making and calculated deceptions to test their captors’ attention. While camp routines repeat day in and day out, action picks up when the two decide to try an escape. With the end game in mind, they start stealing food and supplies, which they hide around the camp.  Their machete blade is found, foiling plans.  The escape logistics were further complicated because Dyke and Winder weren’t even sure where they were.

During the nine-month ordeal, they nicknamed their captors, the campsites and paths.  The naming functioned as a diversion and also helped them exercise some control over the situation, however illusory.  They called the last camp, where they were held two months, Inspirational Site because that’s where the idea of escape seemed an option for a while.  In the last camp, there was time for Tom, the botanist, to plant a garden.

A few of their jailors demonstrate moments of kindness towards them, but most of the guerillas callously torture animals and humiliate their captives (the two Englishmen and two mestizos who are kept in a separate area of the camp).  The women guerillas sometimes provoke the prisoners with sexual humiliation and one of the mestizos disappears, presumed dead.

My curiosity as to how their peril might resolve drove me to read faster towards the end. There are lessons in this book for other independent travelers who wander the antipodes of the earth.

Indeed their eventual release was also fraught with near slapstick ineptness. Their current set of captors releases them one December day, just sending them off into the forest and telling them never to come back.  Dyke and Winder circle for nearly a week lost in a swamp, not able to find the path their captors had indicated was the way back to civilization.  So the lads ended up returning to the guerilla camp for better directions, though they’d been warned they’d be killed if they returned.  Eventually, they find a ranger barracks in a national park in Columbia and make their way home to England for Christmas.

-L. Peat O’Neil