Part-true crime, part ancestral mystery, Helene Stapinski brings together family legend and truth. The author grew up listening to tales from her grandmother while testing sauce recipes in the kitchen. Included in the larger-than-life stories was one about a sensational woman named Vita who committed a murder and then fled in 1892. She and her two sons founded the Gallitelli family branch in America that became Stapinski’s.
When Helene married and had children of her own, she became more and more concerned that a criminal gene was unavoidable, and just waiting to tear apart her young family. Most of the older generation of her extended family had served time (Her grandfather “Beansie” started his life of crime by stealing a crate of green beans as a child). She watched her kids for the smallest signs of delinquent proclivities. And as a newspaper crime reporter, she was constantly immersed in stories of people gone off the straight and narrow.
Lombroso also found that natural-born criminals had the uncanny ability to heal their wounds more quickly than the average person. One case involved a man who ripped out his own moustache, including a big chunk of skin, only to have it heal a few days later. Lombroso thought that maybe this was some throwback in evolution. Criminals were like salamanders and other lizards who were able to regrow tails and other body parts. … The ability to heal his wounds quickly was only one of the many Lombrosian criminal traits Grandpa Beansie possessed. The laziness and refusal to work, the perfect eyesight, the tattoos and violent alcoholism described Beansie to a tee. ~Pg. 62.
Partially out of curiosity, but mostly determined to know if her great-grandmother was truly a cold-blooded killer, Stapinski travelled to Bernalda, Italy, in the province of Matera. Over the course of a month in the rural Italian village, she met distant cousins who warned her to leave well enough alone. She enlisted the help of local professors, hoping they might have heard stories like she did as a child. She sifted through dusty archives but all was a dead-end.
She left Italy with few answers. It would be ten years before she would have the chance to return.
More than a murder mystery, this is a memoir. Stapinski is doing this for herself and her family first. Luckily for the reader, it’s an engaging adventure. Each time she uncovers a clue to the past, the reader is pulled further into the labyrinth.
Stapinski’s utter doggedness is also incredibly impressive. She doesn’t allow scornful looks or half-hearted civil employees to stop her. By perservering she gets the answers she needed, though not the ones she expected.
Most importantly, she breathes life into a name on a death certificate. Vita Gallitelli was a flesh and blood person, with real feelings and struggles. Faltering economies, widespread starvation, stagnant opportunities, and persecution all contributed to waves of ancestors leaving their homeland for brighter shores. Vita becomes the archetypal immigrant story that America shares.
My thanks to Kendra at HarperCollins for the ARC.
Murder In Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy
by Helene Stapinski
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Dey Street Books (May 23, 2017)
Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches