Excerpted from Home to Big Stone Gap by Adriana Trigiani. Copyright © 2006 by Adriana Trigiani. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with Etta MacChesney Grassi
Adriana Trigiani sat down with Etta MacChesney Grassi for a late-afternoon cappuccino in the dining room of the Edelweiss Inn in Schilpario, Italy. High in the Alps, spring was in full bloom, and so was Etta, who was expecting her first child.
Adriana Trigiani: Etta, how does a girl make the leap from a life in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, to the mountains of Italy?
Etta MacChesney Grassi: There’s not that much of a difference to me. I was so close to the folks back home that when I got married, it seemed natural to try to develop the same ties here that I had there. I miss my parents, but this is a real adventure for me, so I try to focus on that. And I have my grandfather here, which is a big plus.
AT: So you plan to live here forever?
EMG: (laughs) For the foreseeable forever. I’m having the baby here, and Stefano has his career, so yes, I figure we’ll be here for a long time. I want to finish my degree, and I should be able to do that in the next year or so.
AT: What are your dreams for your child?
EMG: Well, I hope I’m as present as my mother was–she was very attentive to my brother and me. She could drive me crazy, but at the same time I knew it was coming from a good place. My father and I have always had an easy relationship. I can tell him anything and he doesn’t freak, whereas Mom gets a look on her face like she might faint. I’ve learned what I can say to one or the other.
AT: What kind of a parent do you think you’ll be?
EMG: I hope I’m a fun parent. But I’m traditional, too. My mother was thirty-six when she had me, and I’m twenty-one. That’s a big difference, but . . . I don’t know, it feels exactly right for me. I always wanted to have a family while I was still young.
AT: Italian will probably be your child’s first language. Will you teach him English?
EMG: Definitely. Stefano speaks English very well, and we speak it at home. I’m sure the baby will learn both. Stefano and I plan to travel a lot with the baby. It’s so easy over here–there are trains everywhere.
AT: What’s your favorite place in Italy?
EMG: Right here. But there’s so much in Italy to see. Stefano and I go to Santa Margherita whenever we get a chance. We love Lake Como. It’s close and it’s luscious–a big, glorious navy blue lake. When we go there I always think of Big Cherry Lake back home. Dad used to take us canoeing up there.
AT: Whenever I come to Italy, I always feel like I’m home.
EMG: It’s hard not to. The people are so warm and welcoming. And they’re baby-crazy over here. You know, there aren’t a lot of big families in Italy anymore.
AT: I hear the population growth is flat.
EMG: Most families have one child. The ones I know, anyhow.
AT: Do you know how many children you want?
EMG: Two or three.
AT: Have the first one and then get back to me on that!
EMG: (laughs) That’s what I hear!
AT: Do you have a preference for a girl or a boy?
EMG: (laughs) It’s been predicted that it will be a boy–but we don’t know yet.
AT: Do you have any names picked out?
EMG: You won’t tell?
AT: Of course not!
EMG: Well, if it’s a boy, we’re thinking about Giacomo–for my dad. And if it’s a girl, Ave Maria.
EMG: I’ve always loved my mother’s name. It will be an odd choice over here–because in Italy, it’s a prayer. But it’s also very symbolic. My grandmother chose it for my mother as a sort of talisman, to protect her. That always appealed to me.
AT: You really are a traditionalist.
EMG: (nods) I never knew my grandmother–my mother’s mother–but she is so alive to me because of the stories my mother has told me about her. I feel very blessed that I come from a long line of strong women. We have, at times, a crazy history–I guess all families do–but it’s always been magical to me. It seems we survived despite a lot of obstacles. And it also seems that we each made our choices and have lived by them. I think it’s important to embrace your choices and go with them. My mother–and from what I hear, my grandmother, too–never second-guessed herself. I hope I’m like them in that way.
AT: I have one piece of advice for you.
AT: Make sure you can say “epidural” in Italian. Believe me, when the moment comes, you’ll want to know that word.
EMG: (laughs) Don’t worry. I’ll get the translation.
1. In one of the early scenes in Home to Big Stone Gap, Ave Maria’s friend Theodore Tipton sends her a postcard that states, “Start living your life for YOU.” By the end of the novel, has Ave Maria taken this advice?
2. When the prospect of using mountaintop removal as an alternative form of coal mining is raised to Ave Maria and her husband, Jack, Ave Maria is instantly against the idea. Do you think she has considered both sides? What exactly is at stake in her argument with Jack about this issue?
3. Why does Trigiani include the character of Randy in her novel? What is the significance of the similarities between Randy and Joe, as well as between Randy’s mother and Ave Maria? What does Ave Maria learn from Randy?
4. Do you think it’s fair for Ave Maria to confront Iva Lou about her mysterious past? What lasting effects does this experience have on the two women’s relationship? What would you do in the same situation?
5. According to Ave Maria’s experience, a woman’s method of coping is to “make things pretty when the road gets rocky,” while Jack “wants facts, answers, and drop-dead ultimatums.” Do you generally agree with her assessment of her husband? How do men and women deal with crises differently?
6. Reflecting upon Etta’s move to Italy, Ave Maria says, “Maybe fate is the footwork of decisions made with loving intentions.” Do you think this is true? What examples from the book support this claim? What examples challenge it?
7. How does the trip to Scotland affect Ave Maria’s relationships with Etta and Jack? Do you feel that any transformations have occurred?
8. Bridges, both literal and figurative, are an important symbol throughout the novel. Why is one of Jack’s goals to build a bridge? What sorts of bridges are constructed–and dismantled–throughout the course of the novel? Finally, how do you interpret Ave Maria’s statement that “Jack needed to build it, if only to know the deep river that runs through Cracker’s Neck Holler”?
9. Perhaps more so than any of the other novels in this series, Home to Big Stone Gap grapples with the theme of loss. One of Ave Maria’s major challenges throughout the book is learning how to let go and come to terms with moving on. In what ways has she accomplished this by the end of the novel? In what ways is she still hanging on? How do Ave Maria’s experiences compare with your own?