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Murder in Matera by Helene Stapinski

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When I saw the title Murder in Matera listed in a publisher’s catalogue I knew I wanted to read it. Several years ago my husband and I travelled in Puglia, Basilicatta and Southern Italy – one of our best trips ever. We spent Easter in Taranto for the spectacular religious procession – an experience we’ll never forget. We stayed in hill towns, among the Trullis of Alberobello, and in a Matera we stayed in a hotel, in a sassi carved into the tufo of a hillside, overlooking the valley and the far side of this astounding town. We spent our days in Matera exploring the alleyways snaking up and down the hillside, my husband sketching. One afternoon we met an older gentleman who invited us into his home, we understood that he was also an artist. Taking us into a cave, below street level, to show us his artwork we found ourselves in another world – old uniforms and piles of papers, cases of wine bottles – and, yes, some paintings. We understood very little of his conversation, we just smiled and nodded – and began to wonder how wise – or unwise – we’d been to come into this place – he could well be a murderer and no one would ever know what had become of us – Murder in Matera. Of course we were not murdered – we were given a bottle of wine and left with smiles and handshakes – glad to be out in the sunshine, alive and well.

Helene Stapinski’s book Murder in Matera tells the story of her investigation into a murder that happened in the 1800s and involved her own great-great grandmother Vita Gallitelli.  Helene grew up in a large Italian family listening to stories of her ancestor Vita and her arrival in America. Helene’s family had their share of thugs and bad guys – she could only wonder if these criminal inclinations were inherited from her infamous ancestor.

As a writer, journalist, and newspaper reporter Helene was more and more intrigued by the stories she grew up hearing, and she knew how to do the research. An early trip to the province of Matera and the village where Vita lived resulted in little new information – and no answers. Ten years later, with many arrangements made for assistance in Italy, Helene spent a month in Basilicata where she found a wealth of documentation available. She made discoveries she could never have anticipated, answering some questions and posing even more.

By the time her great-great-grandmother boarded a ship in Naples in 1892 there had been a great deal of tragedy in her life – much of which was now known by Helene. Apart from the fascinating story of the author’s family history the books was a story about immigration. In 1892 there were 61,631 Italian immigrants to the United States – 80% were men. They were leaving poverty – looking for a better future.  Vita settled in Jersey City, and her sons became literate and successful businessmen. The generations that followed flourished – all because of the bravery of this woman whose own life had been so full of tragedy.

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