Book Reviews

Kirkus

The author’s clear prose is easy to follow, the insights into Sicilian culture and the inner workings of the Mafia are fascinating, and the stories of individuals and organizations who put everything on the line to fight back are truly inspiring. … A gripping narrative of the roots, rise, and fall of a notorious criminal organization.

Cassar presents an in-depth exploration of the Mafia’s rise to power and the fight to weaken its grip on Sicilian society in this nonfiction work.

Stories and stereotypes about the Sicilian Mafia are indisputably popular, but most are based more on legend than reality. The author exposes the organization’s vicious nature in this ambitious, copiously referenced, and highly readable examination of its historical roots in Sicilian society, the tactics that held every aspect of life on the island in an iron grip for more than a century, and the bravery of those who dared to stand up against violence and corruption.

Cassar details how one foreign power after another exploited Sicily’s rich natural resources and oppressed its people from the ancient era through the 1900s, explaining how the Mafia distorted ingrained cultural attitudes and repurposed religious symbolism to frame corruption of the rich and exploitation of the poor as matters of loyalty, tradition, and honour.

The author movingly describes the incredible courage of those who risked their lives to fight organized crime—including judges, prosecutors, parish priests, and ordinary villagers.

“The residents of the mafia capital were expressing their rage through handmade signs painted on bedsheets,” Cassar writes. “Every person who was hanging the sheet outside their home was making a clear declaration of intent, telling both the authorities and the Mafia—you know who we are and you know where we live, but we are no longer willing to be silent.”

The author’s clear prose is easy to follow, the insights into Sicilian culture and the inner workings of the Mafia are fascinating, and the stories of individuals and organizations who put everything on the line to fight back are truly inspiring. The end of each section includes a helpful timeline of the events it covers as well as occasional footnotes, a five-page bibliography, and more than 200 endnotes and references.

A gripping narrative of the roots, rise, and fall of a notorious criminal organization.


LoveReading

This is an absorbing read. The author has obviously put in a great deal of time and research, from the expansive resources referenced and supplied as further reading, to the timeline of dates included at the end of each section. Although dense with information, it flows really well, as you learn about everything from the unification of Italy through to the political climate around the time of the Cold War and the flaws in the judicial system exploited to this day by the Cosa Nostra.

A highly researched exploration of Sicilian history and the Cosa Nostra.

Starting all the way back in 1500 BCE ‘The Battle for Sicily’s Soul’ by Cluudine Cassar tells the incredible story of Sicily and, interwoven within it, the ever-present shadow of the Sicilian Mafia, or the Cosa Nostra. Starting with the perfect melting pot of social conditions ripe for exploitation, the appropriation and corruption of significant cultural and religious symbols and events led to a “primordial soup” that allowed the mafia to rise while maintaining a façade of respect and honour. The book winds its way through history, the mafia wars, the rejection of the mafia by the catholic church and the Maxi Trials through to the roles it played during the COVID-19 pandemic and its operations today.

This is an absorbing read. The author has obviously put in a great deal of time and research, from the expansive resources referenced and supplied as further reading, to the timeline of dates included at the end of each section. Although dense with information, it flows really well, as you learn about everything from the unification of Italy through to the political climate around the time of the Cold War and the flaws in the judicial system exploited to this day by the Cosa Nostra. As you would perhaps expect, the fictional representations of the Mafia are mentioned, and their impact on the real thing. However, the organisation isn’t glamorised, with emphasis throughout and in the timelines on the death and destruction caused in order to maintain their control. A fascinating read for anyone interested in Italy and Sicily’s history.


Readers’ Favorite (1)

The Battle for Sicily’s Soul is powerful history with a true crime narrative running throughout the book.

“His death opened the season of excellent cadavers,” declared a panel of judges in ruling on the killing of journalist Mario Francese in The Battle for Sicily’s Soul by Claudine Cassar. He had been one of the numerous individuals, from writers to police officers to judges and politicians, who attempted to release Sicily from the deadly grip of the Mafia and paid for it with their lives. Various organized crime groups control areas of Italy, but the prominence of the Mafia and its dominant influence in Sicily has attracted the most attention. During a lengthy portion of its history, Sicily was the subject of territorial battles between its citizens and their colonizers. Once free from oppression, the rule of law was abandoned. The Mafiosi came about with the rise of land barons, first as debt collectors and enforcers, and later as agents for protection.

The Battle for Sicily’s Soul is powerful history with a true crime narrative running throughout the book. Claudine Cassar skillfully breaks down the sociological aspects that led to the rise of the “Men of Honor” who would dominate those under their influence through threats and violence. Cassar breaks down the mythology that dominates the popular thinking about the men who make up the various gangs (or coscas). The Mafia is shown to be opportunistic, vengeful, and predatory in its actions in Sicily. Their ruthless ambition led groups like the Corleonesi to wage war on the state, in the face of the population’s refusal to tolerate wanton violence. Cassar applauds the brave men and women who challenged the Mafia as genuine heroes. This is a book for true crime and history buffs.


Readers’ Favorite (2)

The Battle for Sicily’s Soul by Claudine Cassar is a well-researched book exposing the disturbing effects of one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world on Sicilian society and the Catholic Church. This book impressed me with its fascinating information on how the Sicilian Mafia infiltrated the local culture.

The Battle for Sicily’s Soul: The Rise of the Mafia and the Fight to Free Sicily from its Evil Tyranny by Claudine Cassar is a must-read historical nonfiction book. It focuses on the Sicilian Mafia and gives a deeper understanding of the origin of the criminal organization’s name. It shows how the most powerful criminal organization in Sicily, Cosa Nostra, manipulated and corrupted Sicilian society and the Catholic Church for decades to suit its criminal purposes. Cassar presents the factors that created the perfect environment for Cosa Nostra to grow and take over the island. This book provides a comprehensive analysis of the criminal society itself. It also takes a look at its history, economic realities, and power hierarchies to truly understand the nature of Cosa Nostra. Claudine Cassar explains how it survived and kept its inner workings veiled in a shroud of secrecy for so long.

The Battle for Sicily’s Soul by Claudine Cassar is a well-researched book exposing the disturbing effects of one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world on Sicilian society and the Catholic Church. This book impressed me with its fascinating information on how the Sicilian Mafia infiltrated the local culture. It intrigued me to learn how the movie The Godfather became an inspiration for Cosa Nostra’s members. This engrossing account skillfully reveals how the Sicilian Mafia was able to create a false yet appealing narrative that served its members well over the years. It is worth reading as it shows the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the attempts by Cosa Nostra to re-establish its image in Sicilian society.


Times of Malta

While this certainly can’t be described as a light-hearted read, there is a strong beacon of hope shining all through the chapters as Cassar introduces us to the good people, the fighters, the ones who refuse to give up their beloved island to the Mafia.

The Battle for Sicily’s Soul is not an easy read. Don’t expect the romantic approach that blockbuster TV series like Suburra or Gomorrah imbued into the Mafia because you’ll be disappointed. Crucially, this is a non-fiction publication so, if you’re after a gritty account that has been meticulously researched and put together, then you will certainly appreciate Cassar’s book.

What really grabbed me about The Battle for Sicily’s Soul is the way Cassar manages to bring a strong human angle to what is, at its core, a tale of hardened criminality. She does this by weaving an emotional narrative within the foreground of history, cleverly demonstrating how the Mafia succeeded in gaining an octopus-like hold on Sicily by means of an insidious tactic – ingratiating itself with the community and becoming part of local culture, some members almost gaining the status of folk heroes.

Although a historical narrative, The Battle For Sicily’s Soul manages to avoid the trap that some other non-fictional accounts fall into – that of making things too dated. The book does go back to the roots of the organisation, but it also brings the reader into the here and now all the way up to COVID times. I found this aspect particularly intriguing, as I’d never have thought that the pandemic would actually have an impact on the business strategy of the Mafia.

On its road to the 21st century, the book takes detours into pop culture, even explaining how the classic hit movie The Godfather broke outside the realms of the fictional world its set in, inspiring and driving real-life mafiosi.

Organised crime isn’t exactly a chill theme to read about, and there is the fear by some readers that this could very well be a journey of darkness that they’re not really up for after a day dealing with the daily stresses of life.

But this isn’t the case here. While this certainly can’t be described as a light-hearted read, there is a strong beacon of hope shining all through the chapters as Cassar introduces us to the good people, the fighters, the ones who refuse to give up their beloved island to the Mafia. Ultimately, as their story runs parallel to that of the darker protagonists, it elevates The Battle for Sicily’s Soul from a mere account of the worst kinds of crime into a courageous tale the ending of which hasn’t quite been written yet.


The Malta Independent

The book is a very good read..

The book is a very good read, and in the English language, on the history and on most dimensions of the Mafia.

It goes back in history to explain how the Mafia came to be. Essentially, it would seem, the Mafia was born when the central authorities proved incapable of penetrating Sicily’s hinterland and establishing the rule of law. In the absence of that, the Mafia was born, a very insular and closed-up method of rule, based on secrecy and the use of force.

Thus was born the Mafia, a bastion against central government. This happened when Sicily was ruled by the Bourbons, it could have changed when Garibaldi arrived but then the new kingdom left all power in the hands of the big, usually absentee, landowners.

The Mafia was very Italian, very Sicilian. Hence its links with the Church and with Catholic devotions.

The book describes its rite of initiation and then includes a description of The Godfather, which turned the Mafia into a global trademark. Then tit launches into a riveting collection of stories of Mafia killings during the last century, not just of victims of the Mafia civil wars but also the heroes representing the State who were killed in spectacular bombings, like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino as well as other heroic victims like Blessed Rino Puglisi.


Academic Reviews

Cassar’s rendition of a unique society torn over the centuries by forces without and within depicts Sicily’s resilient struggle for rebirth. The book succeeds in portraying the island’s journey of survival, pain and resilience.

Dr. Saviour Formosa, Professor of Criminology, University of Malta


A brave and very useful attempt to provide the general reader and scholars of the Mafia with a broad and synoptic treatment of the Mafia’s evolution in Sicily. Highly recommended.

Dr. Paul Sant Cassia, Professor of Anthropological Sciences, University of Malta


The book traces the complex relationship between Cosa Nostra and the people of Sicily, mapping a complex dynamic that brings to the fore the corrupt and the vulnerable, the politician and the peasant, and through these contrasts sheds light on the reality as experienced by Sicilians, who over the centuries endured much hardship and injustice. This is a book that reminds us of how terrible humanity becomes when it turns on itself and when greed and an economy of individuality take over ethics and morality. A tale of endless pain. A must read.

Dr. Andrew Azzopardi, Professor of Community Development, University of Malta


A book that not only delves into the socio-religious-historical events which shaped life in Sicily but also goes on to elaborate on how the Catholic rituals, symbols and linguistic register played an important part in the legitimisation of the Cosa Nostra organization in the eyes of the local population.

Dr. Arnold Cassola, Professor of Comparative Literature, University of Malta


Claudine Cassar manages to evaluate a wide variety of aspects, grounded in centuries of hierarchical impositions that moulded Sicilian society and contributed to the rise of the mafia in Sicily. She explains convincingly how civil society, the Italian state, and later even the Catholic Church, sought and found ways to control the influence of this notorious criminal organisation.

Dr. Carmel Cassar, Professor of Cultural History, University of Malta


The Battle for Sicily's Soul

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The Battle for Sicily's Soul

The Battle for Sicily's Soul is a gripping account of one of the most violent and powerful criminal organizations in the world, and of the brave men and women who dared to oppose it.

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