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Marilyn L. Geary
Miners, Milkers & Merchants
Three young brothers leave their alpine home in the mid-1800s to find fortune in the gold countries of Australia and California, joining a mass migration from the Swiss Canton of Ticino. In letters exchanged with their father, the brothers tell of their hopes, fears and struggles. They share thrilling new sights, announce successes, lament sorrows and express yearnings for home and their beloved family. From the 1850s through the early 1900s, some 29,000 Swiss-Italians ed poverty in Ticino for greater opportunity in Australia and California.These immigrants shaped their adopted homelands, growing California’s fledgling dairy industry and fostering Australia’s Spa Country by rescuing its mineral springs from mining. Witnesses to this history, the brothers convey their dreams and dilemmas in voices that are heard across oceans and across time.
Oral historian Geary’s illuminating study examines the emigration of Swiss Italians to Australia and California through the letters of the Rotanzis, a middle-class family from the “isolated alpine village” Peccia in the Swiss canton of Ticino. Three brothers—Francesco, Virgilio, and Alessandro Rotanzi—choose to seek fortune far from home, each writing to their father, Luigi Rotanzi, of their excitement, frustrations, hopes, and worries over twenty-five years. The narrative closely follows their success (and failures) as they chase riches and bear witness to monumental historical events–all set against the fascinating backdrop of immigration in the 19th century.

In 1855, eldest brother Francesco is the first to leave; later, after experiencing severe food shortages and illness, he would write in a letter to his father “I would not wish this trip on anyone.” Six years later, Virgilio chooses the adventure of journeying to California, along with “hundreds of Swiss-Italian Emigrants who had taken off for [the] state,” eventually being joined by Alessandro. Readers will appreciate the opportunity to compare the brothers’ different journeys, as well as life in both Australia and America from the viewpoint of the same family. Images throughout the narrative provide clarification and context for the Rotanzi brothers, including a family tree and maps of important places like Australia and the Ticino Districts, in addition to numerous photos, portraits, and various documents, such as advertisements and handwritten letters.

Though this account will most interest readers specifically interested in the emigration of Swiss-Italians, Virgilio’s life in California naturally intersects with other facets of American history, including the Civil War, discrimination against Chinese workers, and the Ghirardelli chocolate and soda factories. The Rotanzi family is the main focus of the narrative, but Geary adeptly weaves in the experiences of other immigrants, ensuring anyone fascinated by the experience of emigration to the U.S. will find revealing and resonant.

Takeaway: A fascinating study of the 19th century American immigrant experience, drawn from letters between three Swiss-Italian brothers and their father.

Great for fans of: Leo Schelbert ‘s America Experienced: Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Accounts of Swiss Immigrants to the United States, Howard Blum’s The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A-
Illustrations: A
Editing: B+
Marketing copy: A