Around the Island

Friday Night Dialogues: A dark truth about a family’s past

COURTESY PHOTO | Helene Stapinski
COURTESY PHOTO | Author Helene Stapinski

Is there a murderer in your past?  Have you ever wondered what you would find if you dug deep enough into your family history?  We’re not talking an internet genealogy search here, but more like a detective’s investigation, with travels to the alleged scene of the crime, archive searches and interviews.

This is the premise of a “Murder in Matera,” a new book by Helene Stapinski, who will be the featured speaker at the Shelter Island Library’s Friday Night Dialogues at 7 p.m. on November 3.

Ms. Stapinski will share the details of how a vacation of curiosity to the “instep” of southern Italy’s boot turned into a 10-year quest that made her question everything she knew — or thought she knew — about her family, including her own identity.

When reached by phone earlier this week, Ms. Stapinski said that when she was writing the book, immigration wasn’t the hot button topic it is today, and she noted it’s become sort of a hook for interest in the book and her talks. She also explained that many people of Italian descent are unaware of how farmers and their families were mistreated by landowners in Italy and said that they were “mistreated again as third class citizens upon their arrival in America when discrimination of many ethnicities was fairly rampant.”102617_FND_MurderinMatera

With what Max Byrd in the New York Times calls a “downtown, waterfront style,” Ms. Stapinski writes of growing up listening to stories of her great-great-grandmother Vita who, with her husband Francesco  allegedly killed someone, forcing Vita to flee Italy for America, where she landed in 1892. The criminal genetics continued to run through her extended Jersey City, New Jersey family, as recounted in Ms. Stapinski’s earlier memoir “Five-Finger Discount,” eventually raising within her a passion to uncover the who-what-when-where-why of the infamous incident. Food, family and motherhood are the themes of a story written with grit, wit and pathos, as Ms. Stapinski vows to find out what threatens her family, wanting to “crush it, turn it inside out and on its head.”

Was it in fact the stealing of some “forbidden fruit” that led to the crime? Who else was involved? Was there more than one murder? Perhaps some of these questions will be answered at her Friday Night Dialogue, but perhaps not! You might just have to take a signed copy of the book home and find out for yourself!

Don’t miss “Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family and Forgiveness in Southern Italy” by Helene Stapinski at the Shelter Island Library’s “Friday Night Dialogue” on November 3.

Up next: “Writing Wrongs” with Jenifer Maxson on November 10.