Michigan journalist Tintori (Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster, 2002, etc.) recovers the tragic life of her great-aunt Francesca, murdered at age 16 by her own brothers.
In 1993, the author found an old family passport with a scratched-out name: Francesca Costa. “That’s the one they got rid of,” her Aunt Grace said. When she realized Tintori knew nothing about it, she refused to say more. Older relatives grudgingly, sometimes hostilely, revealed as little as possible—and then changed their stories. But the author persevered, reading everything she could about the Costas’ native Sicily; about Detroit, where the family settled in 1914 when Francesca was ten; about the Mafia, with which some of the Costas were connected; and about the male-dominated Sicilian culture that confined women to silence and servitude. Tintori eventually realized she would never uncover the facts. Francesca’s father and her vicious older brothers had tried to obliterate all traces of her; the author found only a single photograph and a birth certificate. She settled on a scenario that made most sense to her: Pledged by her father to marry a man other than the one she loved, Francesca instead ran away, married her lover and was brutally executed in 1919 when she returned to reconcile with her family, which perversely believed these actions cleansed its soiled honor. Tintori contends that Rocco and Pasquale Costa disfigured their sister, then drowned her at Belle Isle in the Detroit River. There was no missing-person report, no official investigation; omertà, the code of silence, prevailed. The narrative, a series of abrupt jump cuts, leaps from Sicily to Detroit, from 1900 to 1990, from Francesca’s life to her own. Some chapters are barely a page long; others are rambling. The author is prone to clichés and banalities, like the counterpoising of her own childhood fear of water with Francesca’s watery death.
It could have been better told, but this horrifying story reveals myriad facets of human brutality.