Oliva Denaro in 1960 is on the cusp of adolescence, adhering to the numerous rules imposed on girls in her Sicilian village, but the rigidity only underscores the arbitrariness. She loves to draw and help her father gather snails to eat. She is a good student who enjoys competing and playing with her friend, Liliana, the daughter of a communist activist who encourages his daughter to pursue an education and dream of a career in politics. Oliva helps her parents, longs for more freedom, and chides the chickens: “You love a cage more than your freedom.”
She understands that her limited freedoms will end with adolescence. The Unbreakable Heart of Oliva Denaro by Viola Ardone is based on a true story and Oliva worries. “My body didn’t want to mature into a woman’s but the outside world already saw me as such. I was no longer invisible: I could be watched and judged.”
The family struggles to get by with a small patch of land. The father is lackadaisical, yet loving. The mother, a newcomer to the village as a young bride years earlier, constantly frets about what others think – and serves as a constant critic to her family, especially after Oliva's older sister was forced into an unhappy marriage. The prize for obedience is a mother’s love.
Gossip is cruel in the small village, and Oliva concedes that words are weapons. “Even everyday words can be hurtful when they rattle around in the mouths of the ignorant.”
Her mother insists that girls must suffer for beauty, and Oliva muses: “Beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. Maybe that’s why we love eyes.”
Protecting a beautiful daughter is challenging for the poor, and a wealthier young man in the village takes a liking to Oliva, kidnapping and raping her to force a marriage. She reports the crime to authorities who are dumbfounded that the family rejects the marriage offer. An officer who is a family friend advises, “The law is for people with money.”
That incident ends Oliva's childhood and dreams of being an artist, and many readers will take issue with the book's title. The girl endures a humiliating trial, during which she feels more like defendant than victim. Activists, teachers and Liliana support her during the trial and years later, helping her bear the shame of injustice. Oliva’s mother questions a teacher's involvement in the politics of women's rights, and the woman replies, “We’re all involved in politics, one way or another…. Everything is politics: our choices, what we are willing or unwilling to do for ourselves and for others.”
Two decades later, Italy criminalizes rape marriages and honor killings. Taking no action on such matters is tacit approval.
Oliva eventually returns to the village to teach and she holds her head high. “Home is where you hope one day to return, I think to myself, even if it has rejected you. Home is where you want to escape from, even though it taught you to walk and talk.”