May 2019 Book Club Review: Beneath a Scarlet Sky

May 2019 – Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

Blog by Cindy Bushey

It is true that victors write the history books and can thereby skew a reader’s view of events.  It is also true that sometimes people would rather not have a written account of a certain time because they are anxious to bury it and move on with their lives.  For these reasons and probably others, what happened in Italy during World War II has never been a focus in this country.  So, Zion’s Book Club looked forward to a new work of historical fiction based on a real Italian who grew to manhood during the last two years of the war. Beneath a Scarlet Sky promised to enlighten us and captivate us, especially since a movie is in the works.  Ah, promises, promises. . . .

First, it must be stipulated that this novel is totally readable; while it is lengthy and has some slow-moving passages, it is a fairly fast read and engages the reader.  The story is based on interviews conducted by the author, Mark Sullivan, with  Pino Lella when he was in his 90’s.  As with any elderly person, there were gaps in his remembrances, and Mr. Sullivan candidly admits  fabricating some of the dialogue and story line to flesh out the old man’s recollections. The story is enjoyable, the bravery of Pino Lella is obvious.  However, many of our readers felt something was out of sync.  One said she felt the book was written for a young adult audience.  Indeed, another member compared it to The Hunger Games.  The language was often juvenile.  The author had Pino using idioms like “It’s complicated” that would be more at home in a present day setting than World War II Italy.  Certainly, Pino was an excellent example of a self-absorbed teenager who cared only about girls.  He had a highly developed ego and was, according to his own account, able to excel at everything he tried.  Although he came from a well-to-do family with a flourishing high-quality leather business, wouldn’t you think the war and its deprivations would have had some kind of impact on his world?  Yet, he appeared to wander the streets of Milan, oblivious to what was happening in the rest of his country and Europe.  His mind was focused on the lovely Anna, a girl a bit older than Pino, who failed to show up for a movie date.

Once the Nazis began to take over Milan, Pino’s parents shipped him and his brother off to a camp up in the Alps run by a priest.  Pino had attended the camp before and now blindly followed the priest’s directions to take long, difficult hikes without ever questioning why the good father wanted to get him into shape.  As it happens, the priest was part of a network of people helping Italian Jews escape over the Alps to Switzerland, and he was training Pino to be a guide.  And, of course, Pino was one of the best guides, surviving incredible dangers, able to navigate in snow storms, dig himself out of avalanches, and ski in a blizzard with a pregnant woman on his back and make her enjoy the experience (this stretched the credulity of a few of our readers). At this point, a map would have been a great addition to the book for readers to see where these escape paths were and how difficult the journeys became.  Knowing various city’s locations would also have been helpful for, alas, Pino’s circumstances were about to change.

On a visit home, Pino’s father announces that Pino must enlist in the German army in order to maximize his changes of surviving the war.  The Allies were starting to pinch the Germans and Italian Fascists under Mussolini, and Mr. Lella feared that eventually the Germans would simply conscript all the Italian young men and send them to Russia to fight and die on the Eastern Front.  Why Pino gave in to his parents’ plan was a question we discussed at length.  Perhaps, as the firstborn, Pino had been trained to do as his parents told him and not rebel (unlike his younger brother).  But would it not have occurred to him and his parents that, once the war ended (and it was stated that Pino’s father and uncle both thought the war would be over in a year or more with the Allies victorious), the townspeople would exact revenge on citizens who worked for the Germans?  Nevertheless, Pino is now in the German army and his excellent driving ability secures a position for him as driver for German General Hans Leyer.  Pino’s uncle persuades him to spy on the General for the Italian Resistance.  Unfortunately, he cannot share this with anyone, including his parents and brother.  To be thought a traitor by his family is humiliating and hurtful, but Pino shoulders that burden and lives in constant tension wondering when he will be discovered.  He survives because Anna fortuitously re-enters his life as a maid to the General’s mistress. Anna is a somewhat one-dimensional character, sympathetic to some readers but annoying to others.  Pino also acts as a translator when the General meets with Mussolini because Pino, of course, is fluent in French and Italian.

If our readers felt the author had kept the harsh realities of the war at a distance, this now began to change.  General Leyer is in charge of procuring provisions and food for the German army and coldly begins to appropriate and steal whatever he wants from the Italians.  He has Pino run him all over the area as he arranges to have supplies shipped by train to the front (where is that map?).  At a train station, Pino sees people loaded in cattle cars; one of the most poignant images in the book is the little fingers of children protruding through the bars of the cattle cars as they leave the station for “work camps”.  Pino suspects General Leyer is secreting stolen money and gold in Switzerland and wonders at his motives.  General Leyer, a real German officer, is one of the author’s best formed characters.  Our readers were repulsed and disgusted by him, but marveled at the rare occasions (he was drunk) when he was more human and humane, even rescuing some children from the train cars.  We wondered how he was able to compartmentalize his psyche and still function.

Finally, the Allies are in Milan and the Germans are on the run.  Pino has an opportunity to kill General Leyer and cannot bring himself to shoot the man.  As one of our readers remarked, Pino couldn’t shoot his own foot (one of the ways soldiers tried to get out of the service) let alone the officer.  The townspeople, who have endured brutality, turn on those who they saw as German collaborators.  Anna and the General’s mistress die in front of a firing squad, something all our readers anticipated even if Pino did not.  He is thunderstruck and cannot call out to try to stop this atrocity, thereby leaving a heavy load of guilt on his soul akin to Peter’s denial of Christ.  He must run for it before he also is a victim.  Pino’s family now knows how he spied for the Resistance and recognizes his heroism.  After the war, on the strength of his skiing ability and automobile racing acumen, Pino lands an instructor’s job and, in true Pino fashion, ends up wealthy and married to Hollywood royalty.

 Beneath a Scarlet Sky had potential.  The story kept our interest, and it did give our readers some flavor of the Italian Resistance, the insanity of Mussolini, and the horrors of occupation by barbarians.  But it never quite lived up to its hype.  A few of our members had personal insights they shared such as a father who fought in WWII in Italy, flying out of North Africa for the Army Air Corps.  Another’s father had gotten to know three Italian POWs.  He got the sense that they were waiting out the war with no interest in conquering other countries.  They just wanted to get back to la dolce vita. Mussolini and his hard-core Fascists led the Italians down the wrong road, and the people wanted to put the past behind them at the end of the war and move on.  This would partly explain why there was no Nuremburg-style trial in Italy.  Also, the United States was worried about Communism becoming entrenched in Italy and did not want a trial to stir up the populace.

Which brings us back to the victors writing the history books.  One of the most astounding events in the novel is when General Leyer, at the end of the war, addresses Pino by his code name.  Pino supposedly never knew whether the General was a double agent who made sure Pino could see things at all the places they went so he could report back, or if he found out somehow and kept the secret and let Pino see some of the good things he did.  General Leyer believed in doing favors for people so he could call them in at a later date.  Based on his life after the war (little jail time, home to Germany, buys his ancestral home and renovates it, pays to have his local church renovated), our readers speculated that he could have managed to get the gold he had hidden back to Germany, perhaps paid off the Americans to let him return to Germany, or flipped when he was captured and cooperated with the Allies.  Many U.S. soldiers, including local boys, brought home “souvenirs” from World War II which they could never have afforded based on their ranks.  The implication is that favors were traded for items and money, something that definitely wouldn’t make it into those history books.

While the novel never seemed to fulfill its potential, the story was engaging and easy to read.  Based on real characters and their experiences, it did shed some light on the Italian Resistance and how hard people fought against evil and bore almost unbearable losses.  At the end of that war when the world slowly returned to a new normal, the guilt remained and it still affects policy in all the countries in which that war was fought.  Viewed through that prism, this tale of one individual’s survival is a story of hope.  By and large, our group greatly enjoyed the book (even to the point that spouses are now reading it!).  There was one last struggle with believability when Mr. Sullivan said his wife encouraged him to travel to Italy and pursue writing this novel even though at the time he was broke.  Perhaps hope springs eternal!  As we celebrated another year of reading adventurously with good food and stimulating conversation, our voting for Beneath a Scarlet Sky was two neutral, 8 one thumb up, and 5 two thumbs up.  We would definitely recommend this book as an entertaining summer read.  After our summer hiatus, Zion’s Book Club returns in September to discuss My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin.  Happy reading!