I love historical fiction. Biographies of great leaders, thinkers, and innovators have their place, but when an author can masterfully weave a vivid story through the historical context of the past, it combines the best of both worlds – narrative and nonfiction. It’s a delicate task. Factual accuracy reigns paramount, but there’s more freedom than there is with traditional nonfiction. Authors can take more poetic license and creative leaps in their prose, but they must stay true to history in order for the story to be effective.
Mark Sullivan achieves this balance and executes it to perfection in Beneath a Scarlet Sky. He’s honest in both the Preface and Acknowledgments that he was blessed with the story of a lifetime. The innate nature of the tale lends itself to intrigue not only because of the setting (Italy during World War II), but most importantly because of its main character, Pino Lella. He is easy to fall in love with, no matter your perspective.
A Moral Compass for a World Without One
At a time when the world had lost its way and promoted fascist and communist dictatorships that threatened humanity as we know it, Pino Lella is a moral force and silent hero. From the mountains of northern Italy to the streets of Milan, Pino shows time and again that empathy, altruism, and kindness still survived amidst tyranny, genocide, and oppression. An avid and accomplished skier and mountain-climber, the early parts of Pino’s story take you on one adventure after the next. His heroics are stories unlikely to be recorded in the annals of history, but exemplify the significant contributions many people made to others in need during World War II – whether it be rescuing Jews bound for concentration, saving political prisoners, or freeing those subjected to forced labor. Pino plays a pivotal role, both directly and indirectly, to help countless people reach safety and salvation.
“Love Conquers All Things”
Sullivan cites this Virgil quote at the beginning of the novel, which truly captures its essence. One of the prevailing themes is that love and hope endure, even during a time when monsters try to rid them from the Earth. In particular, Pino’s love with Anna is magical. His persistent nature reveals itself from the second they meet. The strength and conviction of their love really makes you question – is there really one special person for everyone? Their interactions and the enjoyment they share from being together make you question whether anyone in their shoes could achieve such a level of compatibility. And meanwhile, curfews are imposed across the city, Nazis patrol the streets, and Jews are sent to concentration camps, but yet, Pino and Anna are able to take pleasure in the simple moments. Love can thrive even in the worst of times.
One of the more fascinating subplots of the novel is Pino’s relationship with General Hans Leyers. General Leyers is the second most powerful man in Italy during the relevant period. He was responsible for supplying and organizing all of the Nazi forces in the country, and he meets Pino by happenstance after Pino fixes his car one day in Milan. Leyers hires him as his driver on the spot. So here is young Pino, not even 20 years of age, driving a German general throughout Italy, while witnessing one atrocity after the next in real time. General Leyers calls Pino “Vorarbeiter”, which roughly translates to “foreman” in English. It is simultaneously affectionate and subservient.
Although Pino becomes a Nazi and helps General Leyers as his personal chauffeur, he joins the resistance movement undercover for the Allied forces. Pino’s experience here explores how you sometimes have to submit and endure something you hate in order to save something you love. It’s riveting until the very end of the war, with a final push that leaves you on the edge of your seat.
Much has been written about World War II, but this novel has earned – at least in my books – a respectable place in its larger anthology. It is an easy, enjoyable, and entertaining read filled with historical facts that inform you as you go. The story is fascinating and in parts, almost downright improbable. Yet there’s a real man behind the character of Pino Lella. A man who experienced triumph and unspeakable tragedy, but who was one of many lesser known heroes that helped defeat Nazi Germany and win the war.
Pino’s story puts loss into perspective. For me this was encapsulated when Anna explained, “The best thing is to grieve for the people you loved and lost, and then welcome and love the new people life puts in front of you.” Sometimes loss can seem like a never-ending theme. Grieving, but being able to carry on is a good life lesson to remember and apply.