American author E. Annie Proulx’s novel Accordion Crimes
(1996) follows an accordion brought to the United States from Italy in the 19th century, and the misfortunes that befall each of its owners, most of whom are immigrants or the recent descendants of immigrants. It spans the period from 1910 in Italy to 1996 in Florida. The follow-up to Proulx's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News
, Accordion Crimes
was shortlisted for the United Kingdom's Women's Prize for Fiction.
The protagonist of the novel is the accordion, which outlasts all the human characters who encounter it. Proulx gives a detailed account of how accordions are made. In the late 19th century, an accordion maker travels from Sicily to New Orleans with his little green instrument in tow with the hopes of establishing a musical career. However, the accordion maker quickly discovers that the only work he can find is manual labor. Before long, he meets his end at the hands of an anti-Italian lynch mob that shoots him in the street. His corpse, along with those of other Italian immigrants, is displayed in the street as a trophy. The accordion maker's 11-year-old son, Silvano, is among those who watch in horror as his butchered father hangs. The rioters proceed to beat Silvano and place him in a box for many hours. The trauma causes the boy to renounce his Italian heritage. The accordion then passes into the hands of a black native of Louisiana, but he too is promptly shot to death in another grim episode of racial violence.
From here, the book takes on an episodic tone as the accordion finds its way to Quebec, becoming the possession of a French-Canadian man named Dolor Gagnon. Orphaned at age two and renamed Frank by an orphanage director, Dolor is stripped of his heritage. He attempts to rediscover it using the accordion to play traditional Quebec music. Nevertheless, in seeking out his ancestral roots, Dolor comes to lament his lost heritage and begins to grapple with suicidal thoughts. In one of the book's most grisly displays of violence, Dolor decapitates himself by tying a chainsaw between two trees and walking into it.
A common theme emerges that the accordion, due to its perceived inelegance as a musical instrument, is shunned by wealthy and middle-class music enthusiasts, making it largely the property of the immigrant underclass. In 1910, the accordion lands with German immigrants in Iowa. The Germans prefer Hohner accordions from their native land but settle for the green Italian accordion as it suits the lively dances they perform to comical songs. The accordion ends up in Texas during World War II, where two Mexican immigrants, the Relampago Brothers perform accordion music for soldiers on leave. The brother in possession of the green accordion, Abelardo Relampago, bit on three occasions by a poisonous spider, finally succumbs on the spider's third attempt.
Around this time, a much older Silvano, who lives in Texas, is reunited with the accordion. Silvano has changed his name to Bob Joe, as he still harbors resentment toward the Italian heritage that got his father killed. He works on the Texas Star
boat and sails to Venezuela. There, he stops in the jungle to urinate and is killed by an arrow fired by a member of the country's indigenous population.
There is at least one individual who encounters the accordion and experiences a positive change in fortune: Ivar Gasmann. A Norwegian immigrant living in Montana, Ivar has a terrible upbringing living under his abusive father who murders Ivar's mother with an ax then leaps to his own death from atop a grain silo. Ivar runs the successful Little Boy Blue Pawnshop, salvaging the junk of his neighbors and making a tidy profit. He is the only character in the book who comes into intimate contact with the accordion and doesn't suffer a grisly and untimely death, at least not by the time the instrument falls out of his possession.
While still in Montana, the accordion becomes the property of the grandson of one of the Germans who played it in 1910. While photographing wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, the grandson falls off a cliff into a hot spring that boils his eyes. Blinded and burned over most of his body, the grandson escapes the hot spring only to stumble into an even hotter pool that ends his life in a surge of shrieking pain. Much like Silvano, the grandson's death proves that the trauma that befalls the immigrant accordion owners is very much hereditary.
Finally, the accordion emerges in Florida in the 1990s where it is left in the middle of the highway. An 18-wheeler runs over it, smashing it to pieces and ending the cycle of trauma.Accordion Crimes
is a deeply disturbing chronicle of the immigrant experience in the 20th century and the pain that comes along it.