Mark Sullivan’s novel Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a fascinating marriage of story and history. While he clearly describes it as a novel in the book’s introduction, it is also closely based on fact. The book’s subject, Pino Lella, talked with Sullivan about his story, and the author conducted additional research in an attempt to be as accurate as possible. The fact that the book is so accurate to its basis makes the story that much more incredible.
In World War II, Pino Lella is a carefree teenager living in Milan. Then the raids begin and the Nazi occupation tightens its grip. Pino, through an extraordinary set of circumstances, becomes both a smuggler of Jews on an underground railroad, and a Nazi spy. The core conflict through much of the tumultuous two years that the novel records is safety versus virtue. When the British begin an all-out assault on Mussolini’s Italy, Pino’s father sends him to a Catholic boys’ school in the mountains, hoping he will escape from danger. He becomes a guide for Jews escaping over the treacherous mountains into neutral Switzerland. His parents compel him to join the Nazi Organization Todt to avoid being drafted to the front lines of the Italian army. He becomes a spy.
And yet, as Sullivan reports in the novel’s introduction, Pino never considered himself a brave man. In the story, he speaks more highly of his brother Mimmo, who fights the Nazis directly with the Anti-Fascist Partisans. Even given that hesitation, there’s a lot in the story related to the price of doing what’s right. This first expresses itself in the mountains by Casa Alpina, where Pino challenges every inch of his physical body to guide refugees to Switzerland. Later, when he becomes a spy for the Allies, he is sworn not to tell a soul – including Mimmo, who believes him to be a coward and a Nazi. His closest friend in Milan also believes this and shuns him; the word “hate” hardly seems to do his feelings justice.
The steep price of Pino’s two-year involvement in the war is especially relevant when you consider the attitude he carried. He considers himself no hero, hardly thinks of courage. He was just doing the right thing. This is perhaps the greatest lesson of his story, both in terms of history and the novel itself: sometimes doing what is right doesn’t feel good. Not every morally good act has the same benefits as helping an old lady across the street. When Pino’s uncle tells him he’s doing the right thing, he replies “Then why do I feel so terrible?” This becomes more important as the story progresses, with tragedy striking Pino’s life in merciless fashion.
While this is the core of the novel, and a central theme I find highly important, I would be remiss to neglect mentioning the love story. Pino ends up falling for Anna, maid to the General’s mistress, whom he sees on a regular basis. Their relationship picks up speed quickly, and she becomes embroiled in the spy game, in some cases even aiding and abetting. Their relationship initially seems shallow, and likely was. But it grows in important ways. Pino is fascinated by her beauty, but also says “I want to know you.” She’s hesitant, but he puts in the work to make her more comfortable with sharing, while also respecting her emotional boundaries. It is not, I should note, a chaste relationship – they have sex multiple times, although these scenes are brief and grounded in reality. As this is a real-life story, it would be dishonest, I think, to omit such details, even if Christians have moral objections.
Well-written, forward-moving, and character-driven, Mark Sullivan’s Beneath A Scarlet Sky is an excellent addition to World War II historical fiction, a subgenre that still seems to be providing its best work. It’s difficult to recommend it enough, especially in the context of such a rarely told aspect of the war. Italy had its own hellish corner of the war, and it should not be forgotten.