Can I just say that it wasn’t easy to find a decent children’s book set in Italy during WWII? Those books are usually all about the Germans or the Polish or the French, or even the English or Americans. But Italians? Naw. Apparently, who cares about them? They made their bed and all that. But—as an aside because this isn’t in this book (but the last I reviewed)—the Moroccans, the Colonial French, who fought with the Allies went on a raping rampage in the villages of Italy. This was whole-scale gang rape. Awful. Whatever the Italian leadership did as part of the Axis, the civilians didn’t deserve that sort of cruelty. If it makes you feel better, the perpetrators were executed or imprisoned. But still, the Italians deserve their moment in the literature stemming from that time, so here’s Hero on a Bicycle by Shirley Hughes.
This book covers several days right before the Allies liberated Florence in August 1944. Paolo, his mother Rosemary, and his sister Constanza live on the outskirts of that city, waiting for the war to end and their father and husband, Franco, to come home. As a Partisan, Franco had to flee to the hills during the German occupation and Fascist regime to escape imprisonment. Even with him gone, the family is looked on with suspicion by the occupying forces and Fascist supporters.
For good reason, it turns out, because the small family is doing everything they can to support the cause of liberty and freedom.
Paolo, a fourteen-year-old boy dreams of helping the Partisans and freeing Italy. He dreams of heroism and spends his nights riding through Florence on his bike. However, an encounter with some Partisans sends him and his family into the thick of the action where he realizes glory rarely comes at the end of such adventures. At the same time, helping some escaping POWs becomes the most important thing in the world, not for glory but for good old human decency (something lacking in the war).
While this isn’t my favorite children’s book about WWII—pretty average—it certainly has some illuminating points.
The Characters. Paolo might be our main character, but Rosemary and Constanza provide fresh, new perspectives. Together, we get a genuine—if simplistic—view of life for Italian men, women, and children during those last two fateful years of the war.
Mostly, I liked the way the German soldiers were portrayed. Some were depraved and hateful, but others, especially Helmut Grass, were just men doing their duty. Men who looked the other way when it meant sparing lives. War can harden or humble a person. Some of these characters allowed it to turn them into better people.
The Storyline. In The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 that I just reviewed, most of the action happens within the time it takes to capture Rome, with everything north being epilogue (literally). But the war didn’t end at Rome. The Allies had to continue fighting north into Tuscany—where Florence lies—and the Poe Valley. I love this additional insight into that part of the Italian campaign, especially as it relates to the Italian resistance. Average citizens fought against Germany in the only way they knew: by secretly helping others despite the cost; it’s inspiring.
The Writing. The writing wasn’t great. As Shirley Hughes’ first book, this isn’t that surprising. But I felt for the main characters, so the writing was good enough.
If you, like me, want to truly grasp the impact of war on the people, this book offers an interesting perspective; it shows how war forces even children to quickly grow up.