In early March, I attended a reading by Helene Stapinski at WORD in Jersey City, New Jersey. Due to the (correctly) predicted blizzard, I briefly considered heading straight home after work. I was glad that I didn’t.
Stapinski read from Murder in Matera (Dey Street Books) and discussed her travels and research in Italy. A fun and engaging evening.
The book sat on my shelf for a few weeks. However, once I cracked its cover, I couldn’t put it down.
A family legend about a maternal ancestor, Vita, haunted Stapinski’s imagination. According to lore, Vita murdered a man and fled Italy for America. Decades later, she died after getting hit in the head with a sock full of rocks in Jersey City. An ignominious end to a checkered life.
Murder in Matera consists of two interlocking and intimately related stories. Stapinski spent ten years researching her ancestors in Southern Italy, sifting fact from fiction. She traveled throughout the country, met local characters, enjoyed the cuisine, and diligently stitched together the details of Vita’s early life.
The other half of the book is an imagining of Vita’s life in Italy. These chapters paint a colorful and often sad portrait of the hardscrabble peasant life in late nineteenth-century Southern Italy. Readers quickly grasp why the American dream seduced millions of Italians.
Murder in Matera is part travelogue, memoir, history, and novel and a well written and carefully structured book. If you’re looking for an enjoyable read, I recommend patronizing your local library or bookstore and inquiring about Ms. Stapinski’s latest work. Beware: you might want take a trip to Italy after reading Murder in Matera.