Love, Death and Feudalism in Old World Italy

Book review: Murder in Matera, by Helene Stapinski

Author and journalist Helene Stapinski comes from a long family line of thieves and crooks, as detailed in her popular history of crime and theft in Jersey City (especially her family’s participation in it), Five Finger Discount.

In her new memoir, Murder in Matera, Stapinski travels to the Basilicata region of southern Italy, attempting to track down and flesh out a family legend that doesn’t have much historical substance among her American relations, besides its persistence through generations. She wants to find out what parts of this past happened and which are fiction, and maybe redeem some of her blood – she’s always felt like the descendant of criminals (see aforementioned book) but one big, bad story has particularly stuck in her craw and she needs to know if it’s true.

As the legend goes, her great-great-grandmother Vita Gallitelli, who immigrated with some of her children to Jersey City, thus establishing the family’s American lineage, killed a man in Italy. But the details are fuzzy, and Stapinski wants to clarify the circumstances. From the beginning, she encounters problems: unfriendly locals, frustrating lack of resources, petty crime, travel difficulties – enough so that she starts considering some of the dark magic that’s hovered over the region, and wondering if it’s more than over-imaginative fantasy.

The magic element of the story is more lightly and less seriously explored than the bones of the family history, but she sure seems to attract some bad omens that give her eerie pause.

“Go home, the voices in my head said. Turn around and just go home. Leave the dead in peace and go back to America.”

She actually attempts the project multiple times, with periods of as long as a decade in between. She does go back to America, to her home and family in Brooklyn, but the pull of the story is always stronger.

Eventually, she’s able to hire the right researchers and dig up some important details, which turn the entire story on its head. She succeeds in getting the truth, shocking as it is, and learns in the process what Italy was like during its feudalist past, and what that meant for everyday life and people, their culture and habits.

This was absolutely fascinating, and the history was well-told. In a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction vein, the real events that Stapinski uncovers are more dramatic and unbelievable than the tales that had passed through generations of her family.

There are holes in the story, but Stapinski actually does an admirable job of filling them in enough to give the reader a picture of the Old World and its scenarios (they’re integral to understanding the story on a personal, emotional level) while not coming across too annoyingly in her dramatization. That’s a very fine line, and I’ve read instances of it done so terribly it’s cringeworthy, but these were mostly fitting.

The story lacks because sometimes there just isn’t an enormous wealth of information available. She still weaves a captivating, descriptive tale given what she has, but there were a few, sometimes big, points where a lack of detail, or even fairly basic explanation, was disappointing.

But it’s mostly a satisfying, get-lost-in-history read. Some mysteries get solved, others are left open and curious, and that’s just history. Part of its lure is that there are some things we’ll always have to wonder about. I appreciated that although it’s memoir, Stapinski knows exactly when to leave herself out of the narrative and let history speak for itself. Again, a fine line that’s easy to cross, but she strikes the right balances.

“I had written thousands of stories in my lifetime, as a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and author. But none of those stories compared to Vita’s life story. The miseria, the dead babies, the living babies, the murder, the trip to and then from Naples. She hadn’t written about others’ adventures, but had lived her own, which gave way to ours. She and all those millions of immigrants – your family included – who had come to make their lives and the lives of their children better.”

I loved this message, a little reminder to remember where we as Americans came from (that means: somewhere else, all of us), how far the journey carried us, and what it cost. Immigration is never without sacrifice. Her vivid portrayal of the old world that Vita left behind explains and educates so much, and its connection is powerful to the new one where she built a life and future for her family and descendants. And yet, she never completely managed to shake the bad luck, or curse, or whatever strange cloud of trouble followed her over the Atlantic.

Much to learn about Southern Italian culture and history while being pleasantly swept up in a well-written, descriptive whirlwind of storytelling and journalistic richness.

Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy
by Helene Stapinski

published May 23, 2017 by Dey Street Books (Harper Collins)

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for review.

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