Russell Shorto writes books of popular history, but this is his first memoir and it’s a family memoir with some history thrown in. I guess I’m a Shorto fan because he written 7 books and now I’ve read 5 – I recommend any of them.
Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob
By Russell Shorto
2021 / 272 pages
Read by author – 8h 27m
Rating 8.75 / memoir-family history
Smalltime focuses on Shorto’s paternal grandfather, Russ Shorto, who was at the center of the Johnstown WV “Italian mob.” He worked his way through Prohibition and on into gambling. But Shorto’s father comes into it too because this guy didn’t want to join his father in the business and struck out on his own. Not much is said about his mother but his grandmother and great grandmother come into the picture briefly.
Life in Sicily, immigration and oppression are huge themes. The immigrants from Southern Europe had rough lives in part because they were Catholic, but also because they were usually darker-skinned than the Germans and Irish. It was better than Italy had been and in both places, America and Sicily, people sometimes had to cut the straight lines and corners of the law to eat.
And so the Italian criminal world was built and became the Mafia and crept out of New York into the smaller cities of America. Between the KKK and the Know-Nothings there was organized resistance to the Italians as well as simple “no work here” results of prejudice.
The Shortos lived in Johnstown West Virginia where Russell’s grandfather set up a gambling operation and moved into other activities as opportunities presented.
The narrative is slow moving until the last third or so when Russo’s dysfunctional family is detailed. That’s pretty interesting but more acceptable these days than it would have been before. There are lots of names.