Mezzadri, partigiani, fasce e fasci: Julia Blackburn, «Thin Paths»
Julia Blackburn and her husband moved to a little house in the mountains of northern Italy in 1999.
She arrived as a stranger, but a series of events brought her close to the old people of the village. They began to tell her stories that made the landscape come alive, repopulating it with their vivid memories. Until quite recently most of them had been ‘mezzadri’, half-people who were trapped in an archaic feudal system and owned by a local ‘padrone’ who demanded his share of all they had – even a pretty wife or daughter. They were eager to talk about the old way of life and about how everything changed with the eruption of the Second World War.
This village was at the heart of the conflict between the fascists and the partisans, so they learnt a lot about death and fear and hunger and how men and women could hide like foxes in the mountains. ‘Write it down for us,’ they said, ‘because otherwise it will all be lost.’
Victoria Segal, The Guardian: “The title might promise A Year In Liguria, but Julia Blackburn’s account of life in remotest Northern Italy has little in the way of fish-out-of-water comedy and rustic quaintness. Instead, Blackburn, having befriended the elderly residents of her new home, writes down their memories of a savage past with touching empathy, recording a cruel feudal system that left them as “mezzadri” or “half-people” under the rule of the lordly padrone, or the time of fascists and partisans which brought with it fear, death and a constant hunger barely alleviated by chestnuts and dormice.”
Natalie Bennett, SeattlePi: “Thin Paths might at first glance look like it belongs in the Year in Provence category – foreigner goes to live in culturally different place and writes an account of the odd doings of the “natives”, but it’s a long way from that – deeply sensitive to the lives of the community she’s moved into, compelling in its detailed account of the natural landscape, and emotionally gripping in its tales of tragedy and loss. Blackburn is at the centre of the story, but she doesn’t dominate – this is the story of the place, and her relationship with it, in that order.”
Independent: “In 1999, she found – thanks to her Dutch husband’s hiking – an old house in a remote hillside village in Liguria, north Italy: “a mixture of north Wales and the west coast of Majorca”. In a patchwork of fine-grained nature writing, conversations and rapturous rambles, Thin Paths recounts the couple’s embedding amid this ancient landscape and ageing people.”
Claire Beyer, Lonely Planet: “Julia Blackburn, author of Thin Paths, has an eye for detail. The seemingly small and insignificant are given big lives. The common dormouse, the developing tadpole and vocal owl are all given as much loving attention as her new surroundings in this lovely tale of life in an Italian mountain village.”
Lee Langley, The Spectator: ” In Liguria Blackburn catches the last survivors, some in their nineties, in time to hear echoes of a culture that is already a part of the past. At first speaking only a few words of Italian, struggling with the local dialect, she begins a notebook, writing down the names of neighbours, hearing their stories, increasingly drawn into their lives, being changed by them.”