Winner, 2019 IPPY Gold Medal for
Finalist, 2019 Northern Lit Award
Shortlisted, 2019 Fred Kerner Book Award
Winner, 2019 International Book Awards
(Best Cover Design – Fiction)
La Brigantessa is based on true events in the aftermath of Italy’s 1861 Unification, a turbulent period known as “The Decade of Fire” (1860-1870), when scores of brigands rebelled against the harsh policies imposed by the new government, which in turn ordered the destruction of these outlaws and anyone harbouring them. Gabriella Falcone is a peasant girl who works for Don Simone, the parish priest. She is forced to flee her hamlet of Camini in Calabria in 1862 after stabbing Alfonso Fantin, a wealthy landowner who sexually assaulted her. Devastated to leave her fiancé Tonino, and knowing her fate will be life imprisonment at best if apprehended, she allows the priest to lead her through the harsh Aspromonte mountain range to seek refuge in an isolated monastery. They soon discover that Fantin has survived and is employing the forces of law to pursue Gabriella and bring her to justice. Gabriella and Don Simone continue their journey to seek yet another safe haven but soon fall into the hands of brigands. Gabriella is catapulted into a world she has only ever heard about in nervous whispers, a world where right and wrong, justice and vengeance take on new meanings, and where the boundaries between good and evil are blurred. Gabriella is drawn into the role of brigantessa and discovers that the convictions she once held dear no longer have a place in this wild, unlawful territory.
“This is a beautiful novel, one that vividly recreates the heartbreak and drama of one of the most turbulent periods in Italian history.”
—Nino Ricci, award-winning author of The Origins of Species, Testament, and Sleep
“In the writing and storytelling of La Brigantessa, Rosanna Battigelli reflects the very passion and glory, the suffering and hope of the times that her Gabriella Falcone must endure and over which she must triumph. La Brigantessa is written with great heart and conviction—such that, in an era when truth is at a premium, no one will question the truth of this narrative. In fact, the great achievement of this novel is that Rosanna Battigelli is able to make fiction feel truer than truth, truer than non-fiction. Bravo!”
—Joseph Kertes, founder of The Humber School for Writers and author of Gratitude and The Afterlife of Stars
“Based on actual events, La Brigantessa is the triumphant, epic tale of a young woman’s incredible courage and resilience during one of Italy’s most tumultuous decades. This heart-wrenching, unforgettable novel was an addictive read that will stay with me for years.”
— Mirella Sichirollo Patzer, author of The Orphan of the Olive Tree and The Prophetic Queen
“In this historically accurate novel, Rosanna Battigelli uses every detail from pigeon soup to Southern Italian traditions to bad omens, bad luck, and retaliation. As unpredictable as summer storm clouds, as enjoyable as homemade Calabrian sausages, you should read this book with a glass of strong red wine and a supply of baci chocolates.”
—Maria Coletta McLean, author of My Father Came From Italy and Summers in Supino: Becoming Italian
“La Brigantessa is a feast for the senses. The author’s visceral descriptions of events, both terrifying and exhilarating, instantly transport the reader to the sun-bleached hills of Post-Unification Calabria. The novel is a meditation on class, politics, and women’s roles without losing sight of intrigue and adventure.”
—Michaela Di Cesare, playwright and author of In Search of Mrs. Pirandello and Successions
Don Simone excuses himself and in his absence, Gabriella limps into the adjoining room. A straw pallet is wedged into one corner, and a wicker basket crammed with herbs leans against the wall. She starts as a field mouse appears from behind the basket and skirts the edge of the room before disappearing into a crevice in the dirt floor. She shudders and despite the heat, feels a flurry of goosebumps skimming down her arms.
Her eyes are drawn to a cord that is strung from one side of the hut to the other. She notices the splatters of blood along the cord and a few errant feathers. A pigeon. Or a quail. Her gaze drops to a bulging haversack on a low bench. Her nose wrinkles at the scent of freshly killed fowl. She prods the bag with her foot and the twisted head of a pigeon pops out, its white feathers scarlet-tinged. So, the shepherd is not far off then.
The walls of the hut seem to be closing in on her. She hobbles back to the first room and out the door, where she almost collides with Don Simone. He is holding a sturdy oak limb.
He drops the limb and holds her steady by the shoulders, peering at her in concern. “Your face is as pale as the blessed host.” His voice is stern. “Perhaps I should have left you with Luciano. It was madness on my part to think that you could withstand such a journey.” He wipes the beads of sweat on his forehead and under his eyes. “Oh, how I wish we still had Vittorio with us.”
Gabriella was present when Don Filippo advised against it, suggesting a little-known foot path through the Aspromonte mountain range that would bring them to a safe haven—a secluded Augustinian monastery run by a personal friend of his. He mapped it out for Don Simone, assuring him that the forces of law would not venture to penetrate the dense woodlands in the vicinity. Don Simone looked skeptically at the intricately drawn map with its serpentine twists, and after getting a few clarifications from Don Filippo, folded and tucked it into his cassock. “Take care of my Vittorio,” he smiled ruefully at the abbot.
“It will take us roughly two more hours before we arrive at the Monastery of the Augustinians,” he says now, his eyes intense, “but I cannot in good conscience allow you to travel any further until you are feeling better.” His eyes drift past her to the hut. “We have no choice but to stay here for now. The afternoon heat will kill us both if we set out. Perhaps later, when the sun has gone down, you will be strong enough to go on.”
“No! I don’t want to stay here,” Gabriella hears herself blurt out. “The shepherd has left a bag with some dead pigeons, and he’ll surely come back soon. I…I don’t want to be here when he comes back. He might be angry with us for trespassing. He might….” She realizes her body is trembling along with her voice, and her eyes meet Don Simone’s in silent pleading.
“Oh, my dear, you have nothing to fear. The old fellow is as old as the Aspromonte mountains. And besides, I am with you. You will come to no harm.” Gabriella watches as he extracts his wooden rosary beads from his cassock with one hand. “We are not alone,” he says, holding them up triumphantly. “We have the Lord with us. He will protect us.”
Gabriella turns away sharply, freeing herself from Don Simone’s steadying hand. Don’t talk to me about the Lord, she wants to scream. She looks around her in agitation, feeling as trapped as a cornered rabbit. “I’m not staying,” she says with the calmest voice she can muster. She draws out a long breath, fully aware that this is the first time she has defied Don Simone. Whatever demon has seized her soul to make her act this way, she has no intention of fighting. If anything, she is ready to do battle with the Lord that Don Simone holds so dear.
Crossing her arms, she watches as Don Simone blinks helplessly at her. His mouth opens and then flaps shut without a word. He cups his chin with one hand and after a moment, nods. “Va bene,” he concedes. “We will go.” He stoops down to pick up the limb. “Use this to help you walk.” He hands it to her and enters the hut to retrieve his packsack. When he reappears, Gabriella notes that he has also helped himself to the herbs. She spots two pigeon claws protruding from an outer pocket of the packsack.
“I only took one,” he murmurs sheepishly. “We have little food left. May the good Lord forgive me my thievery,” he says, eyes lifted to the sky.
Gabriella turns away, not wanting to show her surprise. Two commandments broken in less than an hour. Don Simone has never demonstrated such human weakness before. In one way, she finds it disturbing. She has always thought of Don Simone as a pillar of right action, a man quick to rise above the petty foibles of his parishioners. A man far removed from human indiscretions. Perhaps nothing is as it seems, she thinks bitterly. But then again, if a man of the cloth can justify his sins, and then seek pardon, then perhaps she can be forgiven for her crime, an act she carried out simply to protect herself.
Gabriella wipes the beads of sweat from her face with her sleeve. Her damp collar is pinching her neck, and her foot is throbbing. She looks up to the sky, but the midday sun is blinding, and she shuts her eyes. No, you are not willing to forgive me, are you, Lord? I must suffer still. There is no justice for peasants like me.
Stifling a sob, she begins to hobble back to the mule path. Don Simone walks closely behind her. For the first time, she feels truly alone. Not only has God betrayed her, but the man who has been her second father has let her down as well. Oh, Don Simone will say an extra rosary and pray for God’s understanding and forgiveness of his actions in such dire circumstances. His conscience will be appeased. Her conscience, however, will not, for she refuses to ask God’s forgiveness for sticking her knife into Alfonso Fantin’s thick neck.
Damn him. He deserved to die.