How would you feel if you were the descendent of a murderer? Helene Stapinski grew up hearing stories about her great-great grandmother, the strong-willed matriarch and murderess who fled to America and gave life to the Vena family of Jersey City, New Jersey. The legend gnawed at Stapinski, so she decided to play history detective and embark on a journey to her ancestral hometown in Basilicata, Italy. Her memoir Murder in Matera documents this road to discovery.
Stapinski has an easy, at times humorous, at times blunt manner of storytelling. She tells it like it is. By all accounts, her great-great grandmother was a lively character. The author is proud to have inherited this trait, but what if the murder gene was also passed down the line?
The author travels to Basilicata, Italy to get to the bottom of it all, to root out the gory details of the alleged Murder in Matera. Basilicata is a small, mostly mountainous region in southern Italy, between Calabria, Apulia and Campania. Stapinski starts out in Bernalda, her great-great grandmother Vita’s hometown, located in the Province of Matera. She spends a month there, making a few acquaintances, but hits a brick wall in terms of her investigation.
Discouraged but not beaten, she returns home, knowing she will someday go back, just not when. She methodically prepares for that day, researching the area, particularly during the second half of the 19th century. What would life have been like for her great-great grandparents? Her research pays off for both herself and her readers as it gives Stapinski a wealth of knowledge from which to draw as she reconstructs Vita’s life and the environment in which she lived.
Returning to Basilicata ten years later, Stapinski finds what she was looking for and then some. Her search takes her to the nearby town of Pisticci, as well as to the archives in Matera and Potenza, the regional capital. Who was the victim? Who was the murderer and what was the motive? As in any good mystery, there are several twists and turns.
Stapinski eventually finds the transcript of the trial. At the risk of giving away crucial plot points, I can only say that food was involved and that the murder could partially be ascribed to the difficult social conditions in which the participants found themselves. However, ascertaining the existence of a murder and identifying the culprits were just the first steps in her inquiries.
Stapinski continues to dig, gradually putting together the pieces of the puzzle. In the end, the real story of Murder in Matera isn’t that of any one crime, but of Vita herself, her instinct for survival and for the safekeeping and prosperity of her children. A poor, illiterate peasant woman in an impoverished land with the cards stacked against her, Vita, like millions of others, each with his or her own story, did what she had to do. She picked herself up and crossed an ocean to start a new life.
Through Vita’s battles and sacrifices in the incredibly harsh reality of nineteenth-century Basilicata, Stapinski gains a true understanding of the struggles her Southern Italian ancestors faced. In the process, she comes to realize how lucky she is. And perhaps this is what her journey of family discovery is really all about.
The cover photo is of a renovated house in the old town of Bernalda.
For more information on the memoir Murder in Matera and its author, visit Helene Stapinski’s website. Murder in Matera is published by HarperCollins.
All about Matera and the Basilicata region in my book Basilicata: Authentic Italy, which is “recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian” by the Library Journal.
Interested in life in South Italy today? Check out Calabria: The Other Italy, my award-winning, non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in the fascinating region in the toe of the boot. BONUS: The city of Matera, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is included in Chapter 17, “Visiting Calabria’s Neighbors.”
What was South Italy like for 19th-century women travelers of means? Read my blogpost about a pair of enterprising British women on vacation in Sicily and Calabria: Early Women Travelers in South Italy.
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