One of my favorite genres is the “Family Secret” book, in which an intrepid journalist investigates some scandal in his or her family’s past and uncovers shocking surprises. A couple of my favorites are Steve Luxenberg’s Annie’s Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret and After Visiting Friends by Michael Hainey.
Now comes Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy by Helene Stapinski, who grew up hearing stories about her notorious great-great-grandmother Vita, who immigrated to New Jersey in the late 19th century. Legend had it that Vita fled Italy with her sons after murdering somebody back in the Old Country, but no one seemed to know what actually happened. Stapinski decides to find out.
She’s concerned that crime may somehow be deeply encoded in the family genes, and how that may affect her own children; the author recounts the criminal backgrounds of many of her relatives, including cousin Mike the mob consigliere and Grandpa Beansie, who murdered a guy in a fight. “Most of the criminals came from the Vena side, the Italian side,” she writes. “The name Vena can be translated a number of ways… But Vena’s main meaning is vein, as in a vein that runs through a family, a trait passed down from one generation to the next. In our case, a penchant for crime.”
Her first trip to Matera, with her mom and two young children in tow, is less than successful due to the fact that it’s hard to conduct an in-depth investigation with kids around. So she waits 10 years and goes back alone, hiring a couple of researchers to help her out. Things have changed a bit—Francis Ford Coppola has opened a 500-euro-a-night hotel in Bernalda—but echoes of the past are everywhere, from the caves painted by monks in the Middle Ages to the two-foot-tall books of documents stored deep in local archives. With the help of her researchers, plus a policeman and lawyer, she eventually finds out what happened to cause Vita to make that long ocean voyage to America.
The one problem I have with his book, and it’s kind of a big one, is that Stapinski frequently departs from the nonfiction narrative to deliver chapters that flash back to Vita’s life in the 1800s. In the afterword, she explains that she used her own “Gallitelli bones and blood to imagine how [Vita] would have acted and what she would have thought and said about the incredible events in her life,” but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with so much conjecture. No photographs of Vita exist, but Stapinski describes “the curve of her neck and the way she tilted her head when she listened. She was smart and wise all at the same time… Liveliness and love of life was hard to find in a place as miserable as nineteenth-century Bernalda. And Vita had it. Vita had it in spades.”
There’s a lot of that sort of thing in the book, almost as though Stapinski really wanted to write a novel about her ancestor based on true events, and came up with this somewhat awkward mash-up instead. She also takes some huge leaps of imagination in a couple of situations where there’s no solid evidence of what really happened.
Still, the one thing that comes through loud and clear is how incredibly difficult life was for her Italian forebears, who constantly faced death and deprivation. My own Swedish relatives came to the U.S. a couple decades after Vita, and life in Sweden was equally grueling for many of its own poor citizens. It’s never a bad thing to pay tribute to the people who made it possible for us to live comfortably in modern-day America, and to think about the immigrants who continue to come here today, often fleeing violence and famine, hoping to find a better life for their families and all the generations to come.