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Book Review: A Barre Stonecutter’s Story

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Book review by Lindsey Grutchfield
Barre, Vermont has a long, storied history as a working-class town, playing host to legions of men and women who upheld the local economy by working the local stone. This granite has served not only as the building material for the Vermont State Capitol, but also for countless buildings and monuments around the country and even the world. As do its granite exports themselves, Barre’s immigrant tradition holds a powerful place in our state’s history. Douglas Gladstone, with his new book Carving a Niche for Himself: The Untold Story of Luigi Del Bianco, introduces us to one such immigrant—a fascinating man who helped to build one of the nation’s most recognizable monuments.
In addition to being an Italian immigrant who lived for a time in Barre before heading west, Luigi Del Bianco was a family man and father of three sons. He was also a master stone carver who could coax the most lifelike of faces out of a cold, hard rock, a skill that served him well in his years as chief carver of Mount Rushmore. Unfortunately for such a fascinating individual, his important work on the memorial remains largely forgotten and his contributions generally overlooked. Since its creation, the seminal works of literature dealing with Mount Rushmore, as well as the National Park Service itself, have failed to so much as mention the man. Gladstone’s work, in examining Del Bianco’s life, aims not only to change this oversight, but to diagnose its cause.
Gladstone’s claim is that Del Bianco’s absence from the hallowed annals of Mount Rushmore history is due to his Italian-American identity. In fact, the book itself centers more around this idea, and the crusade by Del Bianco’s grandson to gain recognition for his grandfather, than it does the actual recounting of Del Bianco’s life and career, although the author’s stated desire is to give Del Bianco the recognition he has been denied so long. In addition, Carving a Niche for Himself gives a detailed overview of racism in America through the years, particularly racism directed at the Native Americans residing in the Black Hills, as well as discrimination historically facing Italian-Americans.
Carving a Niche for Himself certainly makes an excellent point in describing the irony of a memorial to some of America’s most illustrious white men inscribed in the stone of land stolen from the native peoples who lived there, and it’s no great secret that our nation has something of a checkered history when it comes to racial tolerance. Gladstone brings to light a fascinating man whose life, from the Italian village of Medora to the Black Hills of South Dakota, warrants recognition. Despite these virtues, Carving a Niche for Himself reaches too far in asserting that Del Bianco was deleted from history on the basis of his heritage. The book falls short, ultimately failing to argue its core premise in any persuasive way.
We can perhaps understand this overreach, given that the book is published by Bordighera Press, a nonprofit whose website states that it is “dedicated to the culture of Italians in North America.” Gladstone is trying to prove a point, a point in keeping with the focus and values of his publisher; but his efforts, in falling short, only undermine and fatally distract from what has the potential to be an interesting story.