Daily Bread is my middle-grade historical novel set in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, 1911. The story follows eight-year-old Lily, an American-born child of Sicilian immigrants, who loves to sing out her artist heart and prove she is not a little kid. She learns that it is not easy to be a big kid in the crowded tenement neighborhood, skirting old-world traditions, tackling bigotry, disasters, and screwy bakers, and learning to cross the street by herself.
As I bring Daily Bread to publication, I will share the story’s character and plot developments, the fun research adventures, and my writing process. Get comfortable and join me on the journey. You may need to get something to eat. Share your impressions and your stories.
The heart of Daily Bread came from my grandmother and her sisters telling and retelling their stories at the dinner table or in the kitchen. Stories grew from each teller, and time shifted perspective and facts. My grandmother, the eldest, was born in Sicily and immigrated with her mother across the ocean in steerage. She was perhaps two years old when she arrived and met her father for the first time in 1905. The family lived in the Lower East Side tenements on Manhattan Island. Four American daughters were soon born to the family. My grandma spent her crowded childhood in three-room flats on Mott Street and Mulberry Street.
My grandmother and her sisters had many heated argu—er—reminiscent sessions around the table, hashing out the family history. Their mama, my Great Grandma, was at the center, happily stirring pots adding to the commotions in bursts of Sicilian. Many of Grandma’s stories revolved around the wrongs and trespasses acted against her. The sisters had their own spin and burdens. Forgiveness may have been possible, but no one ever forgot. I hated the high-pitched hollering and the hand-slapping on the table. But the stories were so fantastic. I quietly stuck around, listened (never daring to say a word even as an adult) and remembered.
There were few artifacts to verify the stories of their life in the tenements. Photographs during those early American years were scarce. There were no diaries or stacks of letters to browse through. Except for a few pieces of jewelry, sentimental items that were once cherished disappeared from bureau drawers. That side of the family did not like clutter.
Daily Bread is not a factual account of immigrant children baking bread in the basement of a Jewish bakery. I am not sure if the baker’s wife gave the children morning and midday treats or if any of the children were in danger. What is true is that immigrant children of the early 20th century, like my grandmother and grand-aunts, had incredible responsibilities in caring for each other and journeying through indifference, bigotry, and disasters as they grew up (some things have not improved for today’s children of immigrants). Despite and because of their circumstances, they spun their American life stories to pass on better circumstances for their children and generations to come. They made America. Another truth is that, throughout her life, my grandma baked beautiful bread.
As I bring Daily Bread into the world, I will share Back In the Day Stories and my writing process. I am so fortunate to have my parents, several of their cousins, and our matriarch, Aunt Tosca, around to interview and gain clarification. Get comfortable and join me on the journey. Share your impressions and stories. You may need to eat something.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.