“A true story of passion, family, and forgiveness in Southern Italy.” The subtitle to this family history murder mystery promises a LOT–and it delivers! It’s the new pick from the popular Genealogy Gems Book Club.
As a child, Helene Stapinski heard stories about her great-great-grandmother who fled Italy–with young children in tow–after being involved in a murder. Parts of the story were vague: who was killed? Why? When? How? Nobody knew. But other details were startlingly precise and consistent. She had to leave her husband behind. A man named Grieco helped her escape. A child was lost on the way to America.
Years later, Helene embarked on a 10-year quest to learn the truth behind this family legend. Her journey took her to Matera, Italy, “a province tucked away in the farthest reaches of Southern Italy…filled with such intense poverty that no one really liked to talk about it.” On her first trip, Helene got to know the region, some distant cousins, and a bit of local history–but came away with few answers about any actual murder. Other than that some of the locals didn’t want her prying into it.
But she didn’t give up.
And eventually, after traveling again to Italy, her determination and a small band of helpers led her finally to a 600-page criminal file from November of 1872.
It was true: there was a murder. But it wasn’t exactly as the family had said. In fact, the truth was SO different that Helene realized her family was not who she thought they were. And that meant Helene herself was not who she thought she was.
The rest, you can read for yourself in Helene’s new memoir, Murder in Matera: A True Story of Passion, Family, and Forgiveness in Southern Italy. It’s part history, part re-imagined family story. It’s a story of poverty and power, love, tragic decisions, and a courageous and desperate woman’s leap for a new life across the ocean. Helene continues to unravel a past that she explored in her fantastic first family history memoir, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History, an all-time favorite of mine. I read it again whenever I need a little boost of motivation to keep my own research going. Helene is so fantastic at telling her family stories within the bigger picture of the times they lived in–and her personal response reminds me how important my own family stories are to my own identity.
Watch below as Helene introduces us to her genealogical journey:
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The Genealogy Gems Book Club serves up delectable reading choices for family history lovers! You’ll find top titles from best-selling authors from around the world: novels and true stories about families, family relationships, the search for identity or fascinating times in history. Click here to see what’s been on the menu lately.
…And thanks for sharing this recommended reading with your genealogy buddies!
Wish you could write family history like a master storyteller? Take a page from best-selling novelist Fannie Flagg’s fiction-writing. These three steps will help you bring your ancestors’ stories to life, so that their stories become as compelling to your relatives as they are to you.
Powerful storytellers create characters so vivid, we miss them when we finish reading. They take us into worlds that become just as real. Experiencing their stories changes us, even if just subtly. Fannie Flagg is one of this generation’s great storytellers, and she does all three of these things in The Whole Town’s Talking, our currentGenealogy Gems Book Club title. The book is an excellent example for family history storytellers who want to bring their own ancestors to life in narratives that captivate and change their own loved ones.
3 Keys to Amazing (Family History) Storytelling
1. Create vivid characters.
Lordor Nordstrom seems an unlikely hero at the beginning of The Whole Town’s Talking. He’s a 30-something single Swede who has come to the heartland of the U.S. to build a life. He’s a quiet man, a hard worker who starts a dairy farm. But then he starts to stand a little straighter and attract people his direction because he has a dream of what his world should look like. He places ads in newspapers and convinces other Swedes to settle nearby. Swedetown is born around him. We start to see that his quiet determination and vision are accomplishing great things for himself and others. Then this quiet, unprepossessing fellow gets up the nerve to place another newspaper ad:
Swedish man of 37 looking for Swedish lady for marriage. I have a house and cows.
But when he gets a response from a “24-year old Swedish lady of the Lutheran faith,” he starts to sweat and stammer and second-guess himself. He gets his picture taken: he looks like a hayseed. He gets a haircut: the bowl-cut style was a bad idea. But he persists despite feeling totally unready for the sweet, refined young lady who, after more stammering and shyness, eventually and very willingly becomes his bride.
NOW YOU TRY IT:
Think of an ancestor you want to write about. What do you know about him or her? Do you know she was born in a tiny village, or that he lost three siblings at once in a cholera epidemic? Do you know he was the first in the family to learn to read? Or that her husband disappeared when she had three children and one on the way?
You have to pay close attention to historical records to notice those kinds of details. You also have to think about and make connections between different events. That’s how you’ll realize those three siblings all died at the same time, and that not long after, he left school to take care of his family. Then you can start to create a “character” out of those scrawled names and details in all those old records.
Write down 5-10 specific details you know about an ancestor. If you can’t think of any, start scrutinizing historical records. Note physical details in military records or passport applications. Did he naturalize? Could she read English? How old were they when they married? Construct a timeline and make connections: “Oh my, he lost his wife in childbirth at the same time his father died. Suddenly he was caring for both his 82-year old mother and a newborn!”
2. Paint the historical backdrop.
Fannie places the story of Lordor and his want-ad bride Katrina in the beautiful but largely unknown American Midwest. The future of that country was as unwritten as the future of this couple. Gradually a small immigrant town comes into being, content to be its modest, friendly self. Fannie tells us about Main Street, the local businesses, the churches, the town’s main families and how they are related. We get just enough gossip to feel we know the people. In fact, we can imagine ourselves stopping in to gossip over a fence or attend a church potluck. The things that happen to the characters are more imaginable because we can picture the setting.
The story of Lordor and Katrina doesn’t just unfold against the settling of the Midwest frontier, though. As the narrator, Fannie Flagg puts Lordor and Katrina’s marriage into historical context, too. They were like many mail-order couples during a period of great change and movement in American history, she says:
On both sides, it was a desperate game of chance. But, surprisingly, many marriages did work out, and the results helped populate the country with a hardy and adventurous stock. People were willing to travel anywhere, sacrifice anything, to own their own land, to be free and be independent.
Though Fannie is writing fiction, she’s writing within a real historical world that she researches and loves to bring to life.
NOW YOU TRY IT:
We, too, can paint detailed portraits of our ancestors’ lives on a broader canvas of history. Do some reading about the history of the town and region. Look for trends or patterns or events that would specifically have affected your ancestors, based on where they lived, their ethnic or religious identity, financial status, gender, etc.
3. Give readers something to think about, or a reason this story matters.
The title of this story–The Whole Town’s Talking– doesn’t just refer to neighborly gossip on the streets and church pews of Swedetown (which eventually becomes Elmwood Springs). The key to this story is what happens at the town cemetery, on a hill overlooking the town on land donated by Lordor. After town residents die, we meet them again when they “wake up” in their cemetery plots. They still have their memories and personalities. They banter with each other and fawn over loved ones who come to visit their graves. They keep up on town gossip and their grandchildren and changes in society as best they can.
What I took away from this delightful scenario is the idea that family love persists past the grave. That memories of loved ones we honor at a cemetery may just be powerful enough to keep them there and, in a sense, alive. That they continue on.
NOW YOU TRY IT:
It’s not always easy to find a running theme, meaning, or message in a life you’ve researched. After all, you don’t see the whole thing. And most lives don’t unfold along a single theme. But if you’re excited enough to write about an ancestor, something about their story moves you. What is it? Try to put your finger on it. And then write about it, like this short passage about my own ancestor:
“What I see in Thomas Selby’s life is a man who never stopped moving or building. The challenges and opportunities of the frontier were to him an open door, beckoning to him. He started life with no apparent advantages, given away by his mother. That didn’t seem to dim his confidence. He was apparently uneducated, yet he studied law and argued a case before the Ohio supreme court. He bought up land and established friendships in southeast Ohio, then lit out for the California Gold Rush. He failed dramatically: the shipload of flour he took to sell the Goldrushers spoiled and he apparently had to walk all the way home. It took him seven years. But being broke didn’t stop him from buying homestead land in Missouri on the way home and immediately relocating his family. Eventually he settled there and spread his energies into creating enterprises: a flourishing farm, a general store, and judgeship.
I also see a man who seems to have totally excluded his wife and children when making decisions about the future. It was a common attitude for his time. But I think of him striding up to his yard on an evening seven years after disappearing, ragged and worn from the road. Family lore says he saw his wife come to the door with a gun and yelled, “Don’t shoot, Huldy, it’s me!” But if I were Huldy, finding out it was him–and that he’d just decided to move me into the wilderness without even consulting me–might just have made me pull the trigger.”
May is Mystery Month, so the Genealogy Gems Book Club is spotlighting a favorite genealogical mystery series writer: Nathan Dylan Goodwin. In his latest, forensic researcher Morton Farrier finally confronts his own past.
We first met British novelist Nathan Dylan Goodwin when we featured his novel The Lost Ancestor in the Genealogy Gems Book Club. The hero, Morton Farrier, is a forensic genealogist. He’s dogged, thorough and totally likeable. Morton now appears in an entire series about his research adventures–both his professional ones and his personal ones. We think they’re all worth reading! Enjoy them individually–or grab the value bundle on Kindle.
Here’s the lowdown on the full series or Morton Farrier mysteries, in order:
Hiding the Past.In this debut novel, we meet British genealogist Morton Farrier. He’s tenacious and thorough, qualities that make him an excellent investigator–but put him in danger when he starts investigating the mysterious identity of Peter Coldrick. Despite the clear danger to himself and his tough-and-adorable fiance Juliet (a police officer), Morton won’t back off. Meanwhile, he learns a startling truth about his own roots.
The Orange Lilies: A Morton Farrier novella. Morton confronts a long-standing mystery in his own family–one that leads him just a little closer to the truth about his personal origins. This Christmas-time tale flashes back to Christmas 1914: World War I, to a turning point in his relatives’ lives. Don’t miss it!
The America Ground. A no-man’s piece of land–formed from the sea as Hasting Harbor silted in–became home to a lawless neighborhood where a woman was killed more than 180 years ago. It falls to Morton Farrier to uncover her story. Distracted by the unfolding mystery of his own parentage, he doesn’t realize the danger he’s unwittingly stumbled into until it’s almost too late.
The Spyglass File: A Morton Farrier novella. A client’s unknown past leads Morton to a young woman’s secret mission during World War II. Her name ends up in the mysterious Spyglass File, a subject so dangerous that Morton has bad guys after him as soon as he starts prying. He may or may not get kidnapped right before he’s supposed to marry the lovely Juliette. Meanwhile, Morton anguishes over the continuing mystery of his own roots.
The Missing Man. Morton Farrier can’t wait any longer: he must unravel the mystery of his own past. Who is his American father and why did he disappear from his mother’s life, despite letters evidencing his devotion? What, if any, role did a devastating house fire play in his disappearance? Morton and Juliet head to the east coast in the United States to confront surviving relatives, learn what they can about Harley Jacklin and help Morton come to terms with whatever he discovers.
On his must-read list of genealogical fiction are two we’ve mentioned on the Genealogy Gems Book Club page:
The Marriage Certificate by Stephen Molyneux. Peter, a genealogy buff, buys a marriage certificate on display at an antiques gallery. He begins researching the couple with an idea of returning the certificate to them. Eventually he uncovers several secrets, one with some money attached to it, but others are also chasing this money. Surprise twists bring the story into the present day and Peter has a chance to become a hero.
The Forgotten Garden, a novel by Kate Morton. Recommended by a Gems fan. The premise was inspired by Kate’s own family history: “A tiny girl is abandoned on a ship headed for Australia in 1913. She arrives completely alone with nothing but a small suitcase containing a few clothes and a single book—a beautiful volume of fairy tales. She is taken in by the dockmaster and his wife and raised as their own. On her twenty-first birthday, they tell her the truth, and with her sense of self shattered and very little to go on, ‘Nell’ sets out to trace her real identity.”
Keep up with great reading recommendations like these ones! Follow the Genealogy Gems Book Club. Click here to see what else we’ve recommended.
Beloved American novelist Fannie Flagg is our newest Genealogy Gems Book Club author! Nobody can spin a story quite like she can, as she proves in The Whole Town’s Talking. You’ll love the stories of her funny, foibled characters in this intergenerational saga of a small, fictional town in the American Midwest.
The Whole Town’s Talking is best-selling author Fannie Flagg’s newest novel.A Swedish immigrant plants roots in the American Midwest and advertises in Swedish-American newspapers for a bride and neighbors to settle the land. Thus begins the town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, the setting of several of Fannie’s previous novels.
Over several decades, descendants of the original settlers populate the town. As residents die, they appear again among their neighborly dead in the local cemetery. They continue to gossip and chatter and, occasionally, suffer. (One poor man finds himself buried between his first wife and his second, who didn’t get along in life and still don’t.)
In The Whole Town’s Talking, Fannie Flagg captures the broad sweep of Midwestern history while staying grounded in the stories of everyday people. It’s easy to fall in love with the folks from Elmwood Springs, to cheer them on in their struggles and successes, to match-make their children, to laugh along with them (and sometimes at them, bless their hearts). Their foibles and quirks likely will remind you of many on your family tree. That’s all the better, given Fannie’s premise that these folks continue to live on and take an interest in our lives. To a genealogist who falls more in love with her ancestors the more she knows buy medication online forum about them, I find this a pretty irresistible notion.
Special thanks to Genealogy Gems Premium member Richard in Sacramento CA, who recommended The Whole Town’s Talking! He loved “the time span, the family relations and the discussions as folks entered the cemetery and the town changed.”
There’s more of Fannie Flagg to love….
In fact, Richard has read all of Fannie Flagg’s books. He thinks several of them would be “valuable reads” for the Genealogy Gems Book Club.” I agree wholeheartedly! I’m a longtime Fannie Flagg fan, ever since I saw the movie version of her classic novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
I can’t resist recommending Fannie’s second most-recent novel, too: The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. The main character is Sookie, a lovable Southern woman (she is Dena Nordstrom’s best friend in Welcome to the World, Baby Girl!) Sookie discovers she is not who she thinks she is. After a huge family secret is revealed, she questions everything she has ever believed about herself and her family. Sookie launches a secret search for a new sense of identity under the nose of her loving but domineering mother. She navigates the effects of her discoveries on her sense of identity, her marriage and her daughters’ lives. It’s funny, it’s poignant–and along the way she learns about a fascinating and little-known chapter in American history.
Our new Genealogy Gems Book Club pick takes you into the Great Depression with a young socialite’s WPA project to capture the history of a small West Virginia town. She finds drama, contradicting versions of the past and unexpected romance. Enjoy this novel by an internationally best-selling author!
It’s the summer of 1938. Wealthy young Layla Beck’s big problem is not the Great Depression: it’s her father’s orders to marry a man she despises. She rebels, and suddenly finds herself on the dole. A Works Progress Administration assignment lands her in Macedonia, West Virginia, where she’s to write its history. As she starts asking questions about the town’s past, she is drawn into the secrets of the family she’s staying with—and to a certain handsome member of that family. She and two of those family members take turns narrating the story from different points of view, exploring the theme that historical truth, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder.
That’s a nutshell version of our new Genealogy Gems Book Club featured title, The Truth According to Us by internationally best-selling author Annie Barrows. It’s available in print and on Kindle formats: click above to purchase. (Thanks for using this link: your purchase supports free content on the Genealogy Gems podcast and blog.)