Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Different Story from WWII: Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Most book club members I know note that we ended up reading so many books from World War II. We think we've learned all we can about that period of world history--and then something new comes along. Such was the case with Mark Sullivan's tale Beneath the Scarlet Sky, a novel based on the life of Pino Lella, a teenager in Milan thrust into the middle of the war on the Italian front. Sullivan came upon Lella's story at a point when he was doubt his own ability as a writer. By the time they met, Pino was an old man with a full life behind him. The story he shared fills in a part of the war that is often overlook. 

Students of history learn about Mussolini--Il Duce--and the Fascist army, but often forget that the lines drawn are often unclear. As the war was escalating in Europe, Pino's family sent him and his brother Meimo to a Catholic school for boys in the mountains near the Swiss border run by Father Ray. During that time, Pino and his brother were enlisted to help Jews escape through the treacherous mountain passes to safety. They often ran into conflict with partisans who acted more like the Southern Home Guard during the Civil War, using their cause as a front to extort and to kill.

As Pino approached his eighteenth birthday, his father forced him to join the Nazi army to avoid being drafted into the Italian troops who were sent to the Russian border where they were basically cannon fodder. By chance, he ended up as a driver for General Leyers, a Nazi reporting directly to Hitler. This position gave Pino the opportunity to work as a spy, but he had to face the derision of his closest friend and his brother, whom he could not tell the truth.

This is also a love story, as Pino finds that Leyers' mistress's maid Anna is a young woman to whom he had been attracted before he left to join Father Ray. Six years his senior, Anna had a tragic story herself, and as their relationship blossoms, she offers the only light in his life.

Throughout the reading, I am constantly reminded that Pino is a teenager during the course of the story. He sees more death and horror than most people can imagine. Firsthand, he witnesses the Nazis use of slaves for force labor, often working them to death. He also Leyers' receipt of gold bars, presumably put away for safekeeping as insurance for his future at the war's end.

Problematic for some readers is Sullivan's necessity to fill in the details, to imagine conversations, as he reconstructs a life from details he learns decades later. Some questions, particularly relating to Leyers, remain unanswered and troubling. 

I get the overwhelming sense of what it must have been like to balance one's integrity and safety during a time when death was always a possibility. Pino's story also shows readers the lifelong effect of guilt and loss. 

Shortly after 9/11, I once heard an NPR commentator say, "War is how Americans learn geography." Sometimes the geography lesson comes with a history lesson as well.


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