Mob wives who took on Italy’s bru­tal ’Ndrangheta — and paid the price.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY JOHN DO­MINI

Down in the toe of the Ital­ian boot, in rus­tic Cal­abria, a crim­i­nal sub­cul­ture thrives: The ’Ndrangheta, it’s called. If the word seems un­pro­nounce­able, that’s in keep­ing with this gang’s shad­owy ways. In “The Good Moth­ers: The True Story of the Women Who Took On the World’s Most Pow­er­ful Mafia,” Alex Perry takes care to sound out the name: “un-drung-get-a.” The term de­rives from the Greek, the orig­i­nal tongue in what Perry calls a land of “hard beauty.” It means “so­ci­ety of men of honor and valor.”

Perry’s book, how­ever — an es­sen­tial ad­di­tion to the grow­ing li­brary on or­ga­nized crime — puts the women, not the men, at the cen­ter of a story that is both har­row­ing and heart­en­ing.

Cal­abria, when Perry be­gins his tale at the turn of the 21st cen­tury, re­mains “ban­dit coun­try,” in the grip of the same mob fam­i­lies who ruled at the end of the 19th cen­tury. The machismo is deeply in­grained. Wives and moth­ers have noth­ing like the in­flu­ence en­joyed by the fic­tional Carmela So­prano, whose hus­band’s as­so­ciates have ties to Cal­abria. Rather, “the sever­ity of the misog­yny,” Perry writes, “prompted some prose­cu­tors to com­pare the ’Ndrangheta with Is­lamic mil­i­tants. Like ISIS or Boko Haram, ’Ndranghetisti rou­tinely ter­ror­ized their women” in the ser­vice of “an im­mutable code.”

Moun­tains of il­licit cash, largely from drugs, ex­tor­tion and weapons smug­gling, sus­tained the code. The eco­nom­ics of the syn­di­cate are spelled out in the open­ing chap­ters, a grim ac­count­ing that runs to tens of bil­lions of dirty eu­ros. But Perry, while never lax about the book­keep­ing, keeps the em­pha­sis on mat­ters of heart and con­science: the risks taken by a brave few Cal­abrian women. At great per­sonal cost — the ul­ti­mate cost, in two cases — these women took down vi­cious clans and shat­tered the myth of Mafia in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity.

One of the women, Lea Garo­falo, has achieved the sta­tus of mar­tyr in Italy; there’s even a movie about her. Garo­falo first de­nounced her mob­ster hus­band, as well as oth­ers, in 1996, then spent a dozen dif­fi­cult years in wit­ness pro­tec­tion with her daugh­ter, Denise. In the end, the state let her down, fail­ing to de­liver on a bet­ter life, and Garo­falo at­tempted a rap­proche­ment with her old crowd. This ended in her dis­ap­pear­ance — a lu­para bianca, a “white shot­gun,” in lo­cal par­lance, although in her case it was stran­gu­la­tion and a bon­fire (a change of plans from a vat of acid). Lea’s van­ish­ing pro­vides “The Good Moth­ers” with a sus­pense­ful kick­off, her last days alive as ob­served by a teenage Denise. The mys­tery’s so­lu­tion waits till the clos­ing chap­ters. Thus hu­man drama shapes the nar­ra­tive; it ends with the daugh­ter’s tear­ful farewell at a mas­sive 2013 rally in the mother’s mem­ory.

Still, “The Good Moth­ers” is cast­ing a wider net, in­dict­ing an en­tire pesti­lent cul­ture. An­other pro­tag­o­nist is the mag­is­trate and in­ves­ti­ga­tor Alessandra Cer­reti, south­ern Ital­ian her­self, with a life­long ded­i­ca­tion to fight­ing the Mafia. Like the oth­ers, she ben­e­fits from Perry’s deep re­search, so that a cou­ple of the episodes fea­tur­ing her have the mo­ment-to-mo­ment in­ten­sity of Garo­falo’s fi­nal night alive.

The same is true of events in­volv­ing a pair of other ’Ndrangheta women. These are Maria Con­cetta Cacciola, an abused wife who can’t take any more, and Giusep­pina Pesce, who’s some­thing else again; a char­ac­ter wor­thy of Elena Fer­rante, Pesce has got­ten her own hands dirty (though not bloody), yet while fearless about mob work, she’s a jelly donut when it comes to her kids.

The chil­dren, for all three “good moth­ers,” af­ford lever­age for the bad guys. The women don’t do well un­der state pro­tec­tion; in a mo­tel up north, with no one but cops for com­pany, the old crowd down south starts to look ap­peal­ing. The kids es­pe­cially suf­fer, and one by one, the women cave, re­cant­ing their tes­ti­mony and fall­ing back into ’Ndrangheta clutches. The re­sults aren’t al­ways fa­tal, thanks in par­tic­u­lar to Cer­reti, but the sorry pat­tern cre­ates a prob­lem for the book, a touch of the pre­dictable. The same qual­ity some­times af­flicts the clos­ing court­room se­quences.

Yet it’s good to go step by step, as Perry does, through the de­struc­tion of these clans. It’s good to linger over the women’s tri­umph, since theirs is but one bat­tle in the war against what Perry calls a “global mafia.” So his book cel­e­brates how a few he­roes made a sig­nif­i­cant change for the bet­ter — in a “dis­play of adamant and un­yield­ing fem­i­nin­ity.” John Do­mini’s lat­est book is “Movieola!” In 2019, he’ll pub­lish his fourth novel, “The Color In­side a Melon.”


A crowd at­tends the fu­neral of Lea Garo­falo in the Pi­azza Bec­ca­ria in Mi­lan in 2013. Af­ter de­nounc­ing her ’Ndrangheta mob­ster hus­band and oth­ers, Garo­falo at­tempted to rec­on­cile — but was mur­dered.

By Alex Perry Wil­liam Mor­row Books. 333 pp. $27.99

THE GOOD MOTH­ERS The True Story of the Women Who Took On the World’s Most Pow­er­ful Mafia

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