Juliet Grames’ entrancing multigenerational family saga is based on the life of her grandmother, Stella, who was born in 1920 in the small Italian village of Ievoli and, 16 years later, immigrated with her family to Connecticut as World War II loomed over their homeland. Throughout The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna, the author inserts fictional details into the life of her ever-stoic grandmother while focusing on her near-death experiences, which were well documented by family members and passed down over the years, including severe burns from cooking oil, an attack by a hungry pig, almost dying in childbirth and falling down basement steps at the age of 68.
Just as compelling as Stella’s story is that of her mother, Assunta, who was born in Ievoli in 1899 and was married at age 14 to a domineering and abusive husband. At first, Assunta’s sad marriage convinces Stella to remain single, but eventually she gives in to traditional mores and weds Carmelo Maglieri, another Italian immigrant. Stella’s independent spirit is stifled, finally, and she ends up raising 10 children, the last one coming when she’s 44.
The final 30 years of Stella’s life, following a partial lobotomy after her fall, are lonely ones. Estranged from her younger sister, whom she blames for her “seven or eight deaths,” Stella lives by herself, her grandchildren knowing her only as “an unintelligible crocheting grandmother engaged in a blood feud with her sister.” They have heard the facts of her many near deaths but know nothing of her feisty, independent spirit, now long gone.
Embellished with details of the extreme hardship experienced by Italy’s poor throughout two world wars and the bigotry encountered by those who immigrated to the U.S., Grames’ debut will find broad appeal as both an illuminating historical saga and a vivid portrait of a strong woman struggling to break free from the confines of her gender.