Set in 1953, New Jersery, Penny From Heaven is the story of 11-year-old Penny Falluci, and her large family that has been split by her fathers death several years prior. Her italian relatives from her father’s side of her family make up a fun, boisterous bunch that is trying to fit into post WWII America. Penny lives with her mother, Me-me and Pop-Pop, who are her grandparents. Early on, it is apparent that there is much tension between the two sides of the family, as well as some mystery surrounding the circumstances of her father’s death.
The author does a marvelous job of transporting the reader (or listeners in our case) to the world of 1953 New Jersey. You get a sense for what daily life looked like then, as well as the fears and worries of the people were. For example, Penny is not allowed to go to the movies or public pool, as her mother is constantly worried for that Penny will contract polio and end up in an iron lung. You also get a sense for the racial and ethnic tensions of the day. Italians are perceived as suspect, seeing as Italy was on the wrong side of the war.
As the story progresses, the reason for the rift between the two families becomes clear after Penny suffers an excruciating accident where her arm is mangled in an electric laundry ringer. While in the hospital, as the families exchange harsh words, the truth about the death of Penny’s father emerges. Shortly after the war, Penny’s father is suspected to be a spy, since his brother Dominic bought him a fancy new shortwave radio (which apparently was not permitted for Italians in those days). Her father was arrested and sent to an internment camp in Oklahoma, along with thousands of other suspected Italian Americans. While there, he contracted some sort of illness and died alone.
Zoe and I enjoyed listening to this book. I felt like, in some ways, it gave me added insight to the childhood of my own Italian mother born in 1952. I could relate to the boisterous and loud Italian family gatherings with good food and good memories.