Book Review: Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

Beneath a Scarlet SkyMark Sullivan takes us into the little-publicized world of the Italian Resistance during World War II.  Based on a true story, Beneath a Scarlet Sky chronicles the life of seventeen-year-old Pino Lella during the last two years of the war.

Pino is a normal teenaged boy, interested in nice clothes and beautiful girls. The beginning of the German occupation of Milan is just a backdrop to his carefree life as the son of well-known purse-makers.

Pino jumped off the bed, kicked off his shoes, and started dancing, seeing himself with beautiful Anna doing a crazy Lindy Hop – no war, no Nazis, only music, and food, and wine, and love.

The wealthy and fashionable of Milan hurried toward home. He could hear their animated voices as one, a chorus of the street – women laughing at some small joy, children crying at some minor tragedy, men arguing over nothing but the sheer Italian love of verbal battle and mock outrage.

But Pino’s world drastically changes when he goes to see You Were Never Lovelier with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth at the picture show, and the theater is bombed. Nothing will be the same for Pino and his family from that point forward.

Pino has always admired Tullio Galimberti, a debonair young dress salesman, and as Pino would later discover, a spy for the Italian Resistance. After Milan has felt the first major strike of war, Pino learns that his Aunt Greta and Uncle Albert are also part of the Italian Resistance movement against the German occupation. Although Pino wants to remain in Milan to do his part in protecting the city, his parents send him to live with Father Re, a Catholic priest who runs Casa Alpina, a boarding school for boys north of Lake Como, high in the Alps mountain range. Much to his surprise, Father Re recruits Pino to guide Jews trying to escape the Nazis through the rugged mountain terrain to freedom in Switzerland.

As the war progresses and Pino’s eighteenth birthday nears, his parents, Michele & Portia Lella, summon Pino home and insist he volunteers for the German-backed army, instead of waiting to be drafted and sent to the front lines. Although Pino is ashamed to wear a swastika, he reluctantly agrees to join The Organization Todt – a part of the German army that didn’t fight but was tasked with building things. But after he is injured, Pino is in the right place at the right time and is recruited by General Leyers, the most powerful German commander in Italy, to become the General’s driver. Although he loathes the Germans, his Aunt and Uncle convince Pino to accept the position and serve as a spy for the Resistance.

Wearing a swastika, Pino experiences both hatred from those he loves for his supposed betrayal to the Italian people, and love from Anna, a woman working for General Leyers’ mistress. Other than his aunt and uncle, Anna is the only person who knows about his covert mission.

During his months of driving General Leyers, Pino witnesses horrible atrocities which he reports to the Italian Resistance for relay to the Allies.

He thought back on many of the terrible events he’d witnessed since the war came to northern Italy. Little Nicco holding the grenade. Tullio facing the firing squad. The slaves in the tunnel…And now bodiless heads on snowy fence posts.

He is astounded to discover the slaves taken captive by the German army, “broken and gray.” Pino realizes that it is General Leyers’ plan to accomplish incredible building advancements while also eliminating their captives through death by work.

Every group of slaves had a Waffen-SS soldier who goaded them to work harder. Pino heard screaming and saw slaves beaten and whipped. Those who collapsed in the heat were dragged away by other slaves and left to fend for themselves, lying on rocks, dying in the beating sun.

General Leyers instructs Pino to drive him to the train yard; they walk to Platform 21 – where Jews entered cattle cars and never returned. As the train pulls away from the station, Pino is horrified with the knowledge of their fate. What he sees leaves an indelible image in his mind that would never be erased.

Three little fingers stuck out of a crack in the rear wall of the last cattle car. The fingers seemed to wave at Pino as the train gathered speed. He stared after the train, seeing the fingers in his mind long after he couldn’t see them anymore. His urge was to go after the train and set those people free, get them to safety. Instead, he stood there, defeated, helpless, and fighting the urge to cry at the image of those fingers, which would not fade.

The fate of the Nazis is finally realized when Allied troops overtake Italy, freeing Milan. Although Pino is relieved that the war is technically over and the Nazis have been driven out of Italy, he soon realizes that the devastation and destruction are not yet over.  He is shocked that the murder of thousands continues – of Nazis, Fascists, Resistance rebels, and civilians alike.

He realized partisans and Fascists must be fighting for control of Milan. It was a civil war. Or perhaps there were Germans there as well, and it was a three-way battle.

Pino’s life is forever changed when those he loves are punished for treason, and everything he believes about his part in the war and the intentions of General Leyers is turned upside down.

Pino’s brain burned with failure. His heart soured with self-loathing.

Reading Beneath a Scarlet Sky is like traveling to Milan in 1943 and living through the pain and fear of the victims of the Nazi regime. Sullivan’s in-depth research allows us to get a first-hand glimpse of what it was like to be a young citizen of Milan, witnessing its initial destruction and occupation, and the ensuing war against Fascism and Nazism. I had never known about the Italian Resistance until reading this novel. I was astounded to learn about a seventeen-year-old hero who risked his life to protect his family, city, and even strangers from devastation and enslavement, and the cruelties imposed by the Nazi regime.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the perfect book for lovers of history and those who are entranced by stories of passion and courage. It’s an added bonus to know that the novel is based on a modern real-life hero –  Pino Lella.

Thank you to Lake Union Publishing for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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