Italy, 1938, under Mussolini. Clara, 11, wakes in a new dingy city apartment to find their mother hasn’t returned from a job the previous night. She goes looking for her mother and turns right at the door, and later her little brother Pippo ,7, wakes alone and also goes looking, turning left. A chain of events starts that tears them apart. Will they ever be together again when war tears the city apart? And what happened to their mother?
The book is structured as alternating chapters of Pippo and Clara’s stories. Pippo is in third person, while Clara is in first, which for some reason bothered me a little. Pick one, don’t mix them. It opens with the death of Pippo and Clara’s father, who is targeted and attacked by local men, but we don’t learn why the little family is different until later. It’s a really solid opening because it sets up an instant sense of tension and dread, and we also are seeing things through the children’s eyes, with their limited and innocent understanding, which foregrounds their vulnerability. As the book opens, they are separated accidentally, and taken in by two very different families, Clara by a women whose husband is a government man who supports Mussolini an fascism, and Pippo by a woman whose husband is a labourer and Communist. This divide makes it harder to find each other, even in the same city, but it also serves to show us ordinary families in war and different sides of the situation. I think this was done really well, it could have been pretty cheesey or overly polarised, but it is always grounded in the humanity of the characters. I really liked that this book was set in this time in Italy, I haven’t read much about what it was like there during WW2.
Two little motifs if the story that are repeated and that I really liked are used well as well. The children’s mother makes them a little bracelet to keep them safe made of strips of fabric and some hairs from their fathers head. Both children wear them throughout the book and it reminds them of each other and their bond. It’s a nice connection as their lives run in different directions. There are also a few moments of almost meeting, so close, throughout the story as the children live in the same city and sometimes bump into people who know the other, but don’t know they know.
If I was being really critical, I would say it’s perhaps it’s too easy that the children are both accepted and taken in by families and also by families so opposite to each other. Is it likely that these two families would just keep them like that? Also, there’s no way as a child I would have left the house to go looking for my parent, I would have stayed put til someone came and found me. But really, if it didn’t happen this way, you’d have no story, no book, and on the whole, it’s well used.
The book feels very grounded and real, but it’s not overly dark. Some war stories can be gruesome, but this one lets you know that dark things happen without going into details. It is really sad, which you can probably guess with it being about war and a family torn apart. It’s also pretty heart warming. There’s courage and laughter as well as fear, family and friendship and well as bullies and invasion, and the book takes us through the blind patriotism inspired in the children to disillusion as they see the reality around them, which mirrors the fervor and disillusionment of the Italian people as a whole. It’s a book with heart.
Read It If: You’ll read it for the Italian WW2 setting, but you’ll stay up past bedtime to find out what happens to the little divided family.
Thank you PGC Books for the copy of this book for review.