In 1875, while everyone in Montepuccio, Italy, sleeps through the heat of the afternoon, a stranger, newly released from jail, returns. When he stops at the home of the woman he has dreamed of for all these years, another answers the door, the image of her mother. The outcast takes revenge on the village, deflowering the forty-year old virgin. The fruit of this single coupling is Rocco Scorta Mascalzone, who is sent to live in a nearby village.
With only bitterness for his mother’s village, Rocco grows into a “violent and insatiable” man, the only living member of the Scorta clan. He builds a fortune on the backs of unwary travelers, robbing any who are unfortunate enough to cross his path. Consigning his wealth to the Church after his death, Rocco’s three children, Domenico, Giuseppe and Carmela, are cast into poverty by his sudden demise while Montepuccio is enriched by the man’s posthumous repayment of his ill-gotten gains. There is one caveat: any Scorta who dies is to be buried like a prince by the Church.
Leaving the country, the children experience Ellis Island in a manner they will never forget. They return to Montepuccio as adults, happily reunited with their childhood friend, Raffaele, whom they embrace as one of the family. Their homecoming is marred, however, by the news of their mother’s death. In defiance of Rocco’s contract with the priest, she has been buried in a pauper’s grave.
The Scorta’s and their friend confront the new priest, Carlos Bozzini, but he is adamant, refusing to honor the agreement of his predecessor. The outraged children dig up their mother’s remains that night; at least she may rest in a grave dug by her sons. The town backs the dead woman’s relatives rather than Don Bozzini: “The Scorta’s are good-for-nothings, but they belong to us!” Soon after, the recalcitrant priest is found dead.
The Scorta’s labor toward a common goal, all of their energy concentrated on rebuilding the family coffers and eking out a decent living. They are never as prosperous as their infamous father, supplementing the family business with black market smuggling. The three remaining Scorta’s and Raffaele marry, procreate children of their own, and pass along the family secrets, instilling pride in each new child that is born to them.
A family line begun in infamy, the Scorta’s have understood since childhood that the inhabitants of Montepuccio are capable of great cruelty with old superstitions and hot-headed judgments ingrained for centuries in daily life. With the most noble of motives, the Scorta’s are insular and protective of one another; Montepuccio is their home, their destiny.
The novel is an intimate portrait of the Scorta’s private passions, obsessions and immense appetite for life, as they carve a living from the land, feasting on the bounty of the sea and their olive groves, casting the evil eye on their enemies in the southern Italian tradition, each generation adding to the family folklore.