I picked up Donna Jo Napoli’s Fire in the Hills at the library the other week. We’ve read some of her work before (The King of Mulberry Street) and really enjoyed it. Excellent historical fiction. This one is shelved in the teen section and refers to things younger kids might not be ready for (like rape and prostitution; no vivid descriptions or anything, but recognition that it happened). But this is another excellent book about WWII that focuses on something that I certainly haven’t come across much.
The main character is an Italian boy, Roberto, who is 14 at the beginning of the story and 16 by the end. The novel covers the period from 1943 to the end of the war and tells the story of Roberto’s return to his home city of Venice. Through flashbacks you get some of the story of how he came to be on an American ship attacking Sicily at the beginning of the book and some idea of what he’s seen of the war before this story begins. I notice on the jacket that it is a sequel to Stones in the Water. We haven’t read the first book and that didn’t affect our enjoyment of this at all.
The bulk of the book deals with Roberto’s involvement with the Italian resistance, the partigiani. This is fascinating material and gives a very interesting perspective on the war. First of all it indicates how complicated allegiances were and how and why they might have shifted. You get a view of the war from the ground but kind of from the margins.
But you also get a very good sense of both the horror of war and how people might respond to that. It is interesting that Roberto has seen a lot of horror and this has made him more pacifist. He doesn’t want to kill anyone. This is treated as a valued option within the story and he finds many ways to help the resistance that don’t involve killing anyone. This aspect of the story provides a realistic treatment of some very complicated ethical dillemmas. And they are treated well. We see the necessity of fighting back against brutality. We see the illogic of much of the violence. And we see a very human character grapple with notions of honour and pacifism. There are no easy answers and the book doesn’t give any. There is no Hollywood ending.
For people who want to avoid representations of violence and brutality, you won’t want to read this book. We all respond to representations of violence differently and we need to make our own judgements. For those who are prepared to read about violence if it is dealt with well, I recommend this book. It certainly doesn’t pull any punches on the brutality of war. But it doesn’t glorify violence either or provide unnecessarily graphic detail. There is no attempt at some kind of sado-masochistic pleasure and the violence is not there to entertain. But war is brutal and this is not glossed over.
Tigger did not seem upset by the book though we haven’t talked about it in detail. She did say that it was definitely a daytime book. I would not recommend this as a bedtime read aloud.
As with many of the best historical novels, there are some notes at the end providing some of the basic facts. In addition, the songs of the partigiani are an important part of the story and the author directs you to websites where you can hear some of these songs and learn the lyrics. She states that the most well known of the resistance songs is Bella Ciao which you can learn here. The music is one of the things that Roberto uses to conquer his fear and keep himself going in hard times. It might be interesting to learn some of the songs and talk about them in relation to how music can help us through difficult times.
For those who want their children to learn about war without glorifying it and to address the complex issues war raises, this would be a good addition to your library. I might now have a look at Stones in the Water, too, though I think it might deal with the more well worn issues of deportation and life in the camps.