Family history inspires Hinckley author to a craft compelling novel

By Donna Apidone

Zina’s family had a secret. They were whispering about her, and she did not know why.

At the end of 1929, when Zina was almost 12, she overheard a family discussion that seemed to be about her. Three households of her family lived within a block of each other in Brooklyn, New York so conversations between aunts, uncles and cousins were a daily event. But the tone and topic of a particular exchange startled Zina. Her parents didn’t want to discuss it, so the girl logged the details in her diary.

Zina also witnessed a series of heated phone calls between family members. A few weeks later, the revelation of the secret stunned Zina and her cousins.

“It shaped who she was,” author Leslee Sambor said.

“Don’tTellZina” took 15 years to write, but it’s a tale that has been discussed in Zina’s family for many years.

Sambor, 54, who lives in Hinckley, is Zina’s granddaughter. Their family tree is in the book, but names on a grid don’t reveal life stories. A detail in their digital genealogy records didn’t quite line up with the story Zina eventually told her children and grandchildren, and Sambor wanted to document the story behind the discrepancy.

“I was thinking, when Grandma found out about the secret her family was keeping, I wonder what she felt,” Sambor said.

To uncover the family secret, Sambor introduces the reader to earlier generations in Sicily. We find out how her great grandparents met. We witness tragedies and obstacles they faced. And we cheer for them on their voyages to America. Like a lot of families, some of their plans did not unfold quite like they expected.

Sambor makes it easy for a reader to get swept up in her family’s history. The characters, most of whom died long ago, were engaging, and their experiences were compelling. Zina’s pre-teen thoughts were filled with dreams of the future, fun with her cousins and a crush on a boy.

“I like to think that inside all of us we’re still just 12 year olds who are looking for our life to be normal,” Sambor said. “We just want to have life make sense. That’s what makes it relatable.”

Sambor is a natural storyteller. She knows how to weave a story that keeps a reader’s attention. Her words paint the Sicilian landscape, where arid flatlands bump into verdant valleys, all with a view of the majestic and often snow-covered Mount Etna.

She presents the shock of her immigrant family members when they left their small towns with dirt roads for the crowded streets of New York. She points out the shift in priorities that came with a shift in location.

She shows us the New World through the eyes of a girl who is 100% American, living with parents who see through the lens of Old World traditions.

“I think of life in stories,” she said. “I have to put it in a story format in order to find it interesting. So I think I’m just always looking at things as: What’s the reason? What’s the motivation? What’s the outcome? How do I get from point A to point B?”

Without family stories, those reasons and motivations are lost. Sambor traveled to Sicily in 2019 to visit the towns where her ancestors lived. She went to family churches and got a feel for the lifestyle of Sicily. Witnessing those ancestral communities added texture to the story and urgency to her timeline.

“I felt like if I didn’t get this book done in my lifetime, I would be looking down and saying I was mad I never did it,” she said. “So I had to do it. Anything more that I do now is going to be just for fun. But writing my grandma’s story felt like a major goal I had to accomplish.”

Although writing has been a significant part of Sambor’s career, “Don’tTellZina” is her first novel. She shares family photos and details that didn’t make it to the book, in her blog,

For lovers of Zina’s story, a second novel is in the works. Sambor says her next book will uncover another family secret, but it won’t take another 15 years to write. ∞

Photo: Hinckley resident Leslee Sambor shares her grandmother’s story in “Don’t Tell Zina.” Photo submitted.