Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna
Updated: Sep 23, 2021
The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, by Juliet Grames (2019)
Set in Calabria, Italy, and Hartford, Connecticut, the story follows one family, the Fortunas, along with many of their extended family, on a journey from Southern Italy to the U.S. It is an immigration story, a story about poverty, and a story about Italian-American culture and traditions (including the Evil Eye, curses, and hauntings from long-dead relatives).
With a name like Stella Fortuna, literally "lucky star," you'd think the protagonist might live a blessed life. And she does, in a way. After all, the book is about the seven or eight times Stella almost died... so, she's a survivor. But Stella grows up dirt poor in the tiny village of Ievoli, Calabria, then follows her father, along with her mother and siblings, to "the land of opportunity" only to find herself squashed under the thumb of Italian tradition and masculine dominance. What I really appreciated about this book is that it feels like a very authentic (and often very sad) portrayal of a woman with a mind of her own living in the wrong time and place to be able to use that mind. There is no sugar coating the immigrant experience. There is no sugar coating the Italian-American culture. That's not to say it's all bad, but how good could it get, really, when you're living in tenement housing and scrounging for every dollar. How good could it get when you're a woman in a man's world. Stella does not get all the things she wishes for. But neither is her life all tragedy. Her deep friendship with her sister, love of her mother, and memories of home sustain her through hardships.
The book also shows that as new generations are born into the family - this time on American soil - the traditions weaken bit by bit, and the family moves up in the world, bit by bit. Now they own houses. Now they graduate from high school and college. Now they get better jobs. Now they help support the older generation, who weathered poverty, famine, abuse, and loss. It's a true immigrant story - the harrowing adventures of the older generation to secure the safety and prosperity of the younger ones.
It made me think a lot about my dad's side of the family. His mother's family was from Calabria, and his father's from near Salerno (both in Southern Italy, but Calabria is further south - basically the toe of the boot). My great-grandparents came over to the U.S. under similar circumstances to that of the Fortuna family - coming from small, impoverished villages to seek out a better life, traveling for months on a boat, speaking little to no English upon arrival. Doubtless my family also faced discrimination, probably struggles with alcoholism or abuse, and the fear and discomfort that goes along with being in a new place. All this in a time period where you couldn't just pick up the phone and call those left behind. My great-grandparents never returned to Italy, and since they were illiterate, they also could not keep in touch. It is often only future generations, with our Ancestry.com and access to convenient and quick travel, make that return trip to try and piece things back together.
My dad and I visited one of the small towns near Salerno that some of our relatives came from, called Fisciano (pronounced fee-she-ah-no) back in 2009. A similarly tiny village, poverty-stricken and emptied out. But amazingly beautiful, with kind, familiar-looking faces. It was quite a thing to stand in that village and imagine our ancestors making that difficult choice to leave everything that was comfortable and comforting, and start an entirely new life.
But back to the book... Without even knowing ahead of time that the author herself comes from an Italian-American family in Hartford, CT., you can feel the authenticity of the story in its details, and in the sharp edges of the characters. I really enjoyed this read, even when it tackled difficult subject matter, and I recommend it in particular for anyone who wants to think a little deeper about what legacy immigrants leave - good and bad.
UP NEXT: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland,
by Patrick Radden Keefe (for book club)