Amalia’s Tale: A Poor Peasant, an Ambitious Attorney, and a Fight for Justice

David I. Kertzer, Author . Houghton Mifflin $24 (237p) ISBN 978-0-618-55106-4

In this absorbing account, Amalia Bagnacavalli’s tale is a horrific one. An impoverished Italian peasant in the late 19th century, Amalia was hired as a wet nurse and contracted syphilis from the infant assigned her by a Bologna foundling home. She in turn spread the disease to her husband and their baby daughter and sons. Her plight was common, Kertzer notes, in a Europe plagued for centuries by poverty, prostitution, venereal disease and legal-religious mores that forced unwed mothers to give up their newborns to institutions where they would be nursed by strangers. But Amalia took the very modern step of suing the foundling home and its aristocratic board, helped by a young lawyer eager to impose a scientific, bureaucratically controlled regimen on an antiquated welfare system. Amalia’s court victory over the Italian medical establishment was no feel-good triumph of justice: her lawyer screwed her out of every penny of the huge settlement she won, and the system of bottle-feeding prompted by her suit killed most of the foundlings subjected to it. Like Kertzer’s much-praised The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara , Amalia’s story is a rich social history, in which new values clash with old in an Italy wracked by the fitful march of progress. (Mar. 6)

Reviewed on: 10/29/2007
Release date: 03/01/2008
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