Review of The Godmother of Barbie Latza Nadeau

The term “mafia” conjures up specific images: men wearing nice suits and hats brandishing guns. These associations come mainly from popular culture, including “The Godfather”, “The Sopranos” and, for true fans, the Italian series “Gomorrah”. Women, however, are never at the center of these portrayals and, as Barbie journalist Latza Nadeau explains in her new book, “The godmotherthey are rarely mentioned by those who study the mafia. And yet, as Nadeau demonstrates, these women exist and act within the various crime syndicates that the Italian government considers mafias, including the “one real mafia…the Cosa Nostra in Sicily.” Other major criminal groups are the ‘Ndrangheta in Calabria and the Neapolitan Camorra in Campania.

The figure meant to link Nadeau’s book is Assunta “Pupetta” Maresca, who was 18 and six months pregnant in the summer of 1955 when she shot and killed the man who ordered her husband’s murder. This act of revenge, of a type usually carried out by men, earned her “icon status among the Neapolitan criminal elite”, writes Nadeau, “which earned her the nickname Lady Camorra and gave her a incomparable stature of original madrina – a godmother”. Before Maresca died in 2021, Nadeau interviewed her, and she certainly makes for an interesting main character. Well into her 80s, Maresca is still completely comfortable with the murder she committed while downplaying her agency within the Camorra.

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Another woman, whom Nadeau calls Sophia, grew up in Castellammare di Stabia, which has a long history with the Camorra and was considered by the church to be so morally fallen that in 2015 a a local priest sprinkled holy water from a helicopter above the city to exorcise the evil within. (It didn’t work.) Much of the city’s business, according to Nadeau, involves money laundering and the sale of drugs and other contraband. To support herself, Sophia started selling drugs for a friend’s father and was eventually arrested and sentenced to prison. Both Sophia and Maresca describe the hierarchical power that exists inside prisons: the former had to work for other incarcerated women while the latter was so well respected that she and her infant son, born in prison and allowed to live with her until he was 4, received special treatment from guards and other female prisoners.

Nadeau aptly describes the culture of normalized misogyny in Italy, as well as how “the mafia and the malavita, the ‘dishonest way of life,’ it produces are just another facet of the culture.” The problem is that the tone of the book is everywhere, ranging from a sort of patronage of Mafia women to a celebration of anti-Mafia prosecutors for jailing them – sometimes on the same page. In her acknowledgments, Nadeau writes that she believes Italian organized crime has been idealized by pop culture, “which has normalized a phenomenon that is ruining local lives and economies every day.” Her book, she continues, “does not seek to glorify such criminality even as it explores the stories of women who had no choice but to remain in crime families.”

But “The Godmother” reads like an over-edit, and Nadeau — who clearly loves his subjects — still seems invested in the dichotomy between capital “B” Bad Mafia and capital “G” Good police and anti-Mafia prosecutors. It is all the more strange that Nadeau repeatedly admits that the various unions continue to function successfully precisely because they are involved in the highest echelons of legitimate state power. The Italian state – which, Nadeau acknowledges, fails to support its struggling citizens – and the parallel state that encompasses the Mafia do not seem so separate. This makes it all the more troubling that Nadeau relies much more on the opinions and speculation of those most interested in punishing Mafia women than on the women’s testimonies, which she says are often full of lies and omissions anyway.

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Confusedly, Nadeau stoops to contempt even for the women she criticizes, often describing a woman’s physical appearance as if she were remarkable. Antonietta Bagarella, for example, is described as “a once-slender, dark-eyed beauty” who “surely should have known what she was getting into” when she married a high-profile Cosa Nostra boss because she been raised by a medium. level one. A few pages later, Bagarella “transformed into an old-fashioned Sicilian nonna”. Bagarella, who spent years in hiding with her runaway husband, was repeatedly brought in by the police but always escaped imprisonment, in part by playing the role of a weak woman. That she escaped seems to irritate Nadeau, who concludes that Bagarella might have been more involved than the police thought. Not that there is clear evidence, only conjecture. Elsewhere, Nadeau declares that Italian prisons are essentially “schools of crime”, leading this reader to wonder why, in this case, she is so invested in the Mafiosa sent there. Likewise, she implies that women have no choice when they stay in the mafia social circles in which they were born, but she also implies that they are responsible for staying when they could turn to the state for help – and then describes children being tortured to punish mothers who betray their families.

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The nuance is there to be gleaned from “The Godmother” if we go looking for it. But because Nadeau’s struggle with the complexity of his material reads more accidentally than intentionally, it may leave readers confused about his sweeping conclusions and assumptions.

Ilana Masad is a critic and author of “All My Mother’s Lovers”.

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