Once Upon a Time in Baltimore by Sally DiPaula is an
emotionally rich narrative set against historical events like
the Spanish flu epidemic and societal challenges, a tale of loss, tribulations,
love, and resilience. Annie and Vince are two characters whose lives have been
altered by tragedy. Annie is an Irish-American and Vince is the son of Sicilian
immigrants. Annie loses her sister and father to the Spanish flu while Vince's
brother dies in a car accident. Their love is forged through struggle and they
face discrimination, illness, and family conflict. They also experience the
challenge of seeing their son go to war. Against the backdrop of
ever-changing mores and social challenges, this couple must struggle to keep
their family together. When Vince is diagnosed with terminal illness, will
Annie have the strength to hold the family together?
DiPaula's is a great storyteller with the ability to effortlessly
infuse the writing with realism, imbuing it with strong historical and social
elements. The descriptions are terrific and the somber atmosphere brought about
by the Spanish flu intersects with the sense of grief that afflicts the two key
characters. The author’s exploration of grief and societal upheaval is nuanced.
The relationship between Annie and Vince is skillfully developed. They are not
the perfect couple and Annie has to put up with Vince’s marital infidelities
and the hostilities between the two families. These characters are deeply
flawed and the pathos becomes stronger as reader follow their struggles. DiPaula
plots like an expert and writes each chapter with a flourish. I enjoyed following
Annie's transition from high school to the workforce and Vince's struggles with
expectations from his family and work pressures. Once Upon a Time in
Baltimore is a wonderful story for literary and historical fiction fans.
The novel's strength lies in the author’s ability to offer a dazzling
portrait of what it was like for immigrants living through the social changes
of the twentieth century. The author’s gift for exploring human emotion and the
inner worlds of the characters shines through this engaging narrative.