Beneath a Scarlet Sky

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Book Review

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

The story is based on events in the life of Pino Lella from June 1943 to May 1945. In Milan, 17-year-old Pino Lella knows that the Nazis are struggling to keep their hold on Italy, but all the teenager dreams about is getting a date. He approaches a young woman and asks her to meet him at the cinema later. She agrees and tells him her name is Anna.

Pino and his younger brother, Mimo, sneak out of their house to go to the movie. Anna never shows up, but the boys enjoy the film until Allied planes bomb the city. Pino and Mimo escape and make it home. Mimo is sent to Father Re, a priest who runs a school for boys in the mountains. Pino and his family evade the nightly air raids by taking the train out to the country and sleeping in fields. After their apartment and purse store are destroyed, Pino is also sent to Father Re.

When Pino arrives at the train station, Alberto Ascari, a boy about Pino’s age, meets him. Alberto aspires to be a racecar driver and demonstrates his skill as he weaves through mountain roads. Pino promises to teach Alberto how to ski if he will teach Pino how to drive.

Father Re welcomes Pino to the school. The following day, Father Re wakes him before dawn and makes him hike in the mountains. Each day, the priest assigns Pino a new trail and longer miles to trek. After a week, Pino is allowed to take the weekend off. He visits Alberto, and true to his word, his friend teaches him how to drive.

When Pino returns to the school, Father Re continues to make him hike. Pino soon learns why. Father Re eventually asks Pino to guide three people, who are Jews, over the mountains to Switzerland. Pino safely escorts the two men and one woman over the difficult mountain pass to safety.

Over the following weeks, Pino continues to lead Jewish refugees and escaped Allied pilots to freedom in Switzerland. He teaches Mimo and several other boys the different routes through the mountains so they can also help. On New Year’s Eve, Pino celebrates with his friend Alberto.

Partisans break into the party and demand the guests give them money to help them fight the Germans. Their leader, Tito, warns Pino to keep off certain passes or he will turn him over to the Nazis. But, as the winter progresses, Pino continues to use all the passes through the mountains in order to save the Jews. The partisans attempt to kill him, but he survives.

Pino has many close calls with avalanches, Nazis and the partisans before he is ordered by his father to return to Milan on a matter of life and death.

Back home, Pino is told he must register for the army because he will be 18 in a few weeks. If he waits, the draft office will put him into the fascist army and send him to fight in Russia. He would have a 50/50 chance of surviving. Pino’s father wants him to register with the German army in the OT, or “Organization Todt.” They do not fight on the Russian front. Pino reluctantly agrees in order to keep suspicion from his family, after a family friend is arrested for espionage.

Pino becomes a soldier. His hand is wounded when the train station he is guarding is bombed. He is sent home to Milan to recuperate. One afternoon he sees a Nazi soldier trying to fix an officer’s car. Pino offers to help, using the knowledge he gained from his friendship with Alberto.

He impresses the officer, Gen. Leyers, when he is able to get the car started. Leyers makes Pino his new driver. That night, Pino’s Uncle Albert explains that Leyers is the most powerful German in Italy. He has intimate knowledge of Hitler and the German war effort.

He asks Pino to spy on Leyers for the resistance, and Pino agrees. The hardest part of the assignment is that he must not tell the truth about his activities to anyone else. The rest of his family and his friends believe he is willingly serving the Nazi officer.

Pino is shocked to see Anna when he goes to pick up Leyers the following morning. She was the young woman who stood him up the first night Milan was bombed. She works as a maid for Leyers’ mistress, Dolly. Pino is thrilled to be back in contact with Anna as he has often thought about her in his dreams.

As he chauffeurs Leyers, he comes in contact with the “gray men.” These are prisoners, Jews and Allies, dressed in gray and used as slave laborers for the Nazi army. Pino is appalled at the men’s appearance and furious at Leyers for his obvious abuse of the prisoners.

Leyers has Pino serve as a translator between him and Benito Mussolini. Leyers needs Mussolini to end the machinists’ strikes in Milan and Turin. Mussolini agrees, but demands that Leyers arrange a phone call with Field Marshal Kesselring and Adolph Hitler. Leyers promises to try.

As Pino drives the general, he picks up as much information as he can about troops and armaments to pass on to the resistance. He is desperate to get into the general’s locked valise to see the top-secret papers inside. One night when the general leaves the valise in his mistress’s apartment, Pino seizes the opportunity. He finds the general’s spare key in Dolly’s jewelry case but is discovered by Anna.

Thinking he is a thief, she threatens to tell Dolly, until Pino convinces her he is a spy. He makes a wax impression of the key so he can get a duplicate made. Instead of opening the valise that night, Pino and Anna celebrate their small victory by having a romantic interlude in Dolly’s kitchen.

When he returns home that night, he discovers Mimo hiding. Mimo has left Father Re to join the resistance. He is appalled to see Pino in a Nazi uniform. For his own safety, Pino cannot tell Mimo the truth about his spying on the general. Mimo leaves in the morning, convinced that Pino is willingly serving the Germans.

Pino witnesses numerous Nazi atrocities: the brutal shooting of partisan prisoners; the beating and starvation of slave laborers; the looting of towns and farms for food; and soldiers beating and shooting anyone who tries to stand in their way. Pino also sees Leyers supervising a secret transfer of gold bars onto a rail car. Pino races back to the general’s car in order to remain undetected. He hears four gunshots. One for each prisoner that helped the general loads the gold.

As winter approaches, the situation in Italy becomes more desperate. Leyers forces factories across Italy to provide his soldiers with supplies. Cases of wine and cows are stolen to give the soldiers a merry Christmas, while Italians are left to freeze and starve. But there is some good news. Pino and Anna’s love for each other continues to grow. The two are inseparable, whenever they get time away from their jobs.

In a rare act of compassion, Leyers saves several Jewish children from being sent to a concentration camp. Instead, he has Pino take them to the Cardinal of Milan for safety. Leyers does several favors for Italian factory owners, promising to keep their factories from being destroyed when the Allies defeat Germany. Pino knows it is the way the general has gained success. He does favors for people so that when he needs help he will have people who owe him.

In April of 1945 the war is coming to an end. Mimo returns to Milan. He knows Pino has been spying for the resistance and the two brothers reconcile. Mimo gives him orders from the resistance to arrest Leyers in two days. Pino spends a wonderful night with Anna before she and Dolly plan to leave Milan for the safety of Innsbruck.

Two days later, Pino acts as a translator between Leyers and an American officer. The general promises to order his men not to fight when the Allies enter Milan. As Pino translates, he tells the American that the Nazis are burning all their top-secret documents.

Pino arrests the general that evening and delivers him to the resistance. As Pino walks back to the city, gunfire and grenades break up the celebrations about the war’s end. Nazis, partisans and fascists all fight for control of Italy. In the morning, Pino walks through streets littered with bodies. He meets with another American officer who asks for his help getting into the telephone exchange and also arranging for alcohol, women and music to be brought in for a party that night.

Pino is successful in his task, even playing piano in a band with his friends for the dance. The night is a blur of alcohol and joy. Bleary-eyed, Pino walks home in the morning, still in his uniform. He is mistaken for a fascist and chased through the streets with gunfire. Desperate to escape, he runs to Dolly’s apartment. He had expected to find it empty, but he discovers it has been trashed. Dolly and Anna were taken prisoner before they could escape to Innsbruck.

Pino finds himself drawn to a square in the town. Nazi collaborators are being led out for execution. Among them are Dolly and Anna. Too scared to try and save her, Pino watches in horror as the mob shoots the woman he loves. The following day, the American officer takes him to see the execution of Mussolini and his mistress. Pino is appalled at the mob’s insatiable thirst for revenge.

Pino is asked to help the Americans one more time. He and his friend are to transport an American ally to safety. Pino agrees, only to discover it is Gen. Leyers he must save. Pino evades Allied tanks and partisan gunfire, but then points his gun at Leyers as the general leaves the car to urinate. Pino accuses him of caring for no one but himself.

When Leyers argues that he cares for Pino and Dolly and Anna, Pino tells him of the women’s deaths. Leyers then delivers the devastating blow. If Pino had not arrested him, the general would have made sure they had been evacuated. Pino is the reason Anna died.

Despondent, Pino allows Leyers to live. Although he prays for death as he continues to drive through the war torn mountain pass, he delivers the general to safety. Before they part, Leyers shakes Pino’s hand and calls him by his codename in the resistance. Stunned, Pino is left to try and understand who Leyers really is and what part he played in the war.

In the aftermath, we learn that although Pino survived the war and became a successful businessman, he never truly recovered from all he had seen and the loss of his true love. He married and divorced twice, had four children and lived the life of a jetsetter. Leyers survived an allied POW camp and went on to live on an estate in Germany.

Christian Beliefs

The author opens the book with a summary of how he came to learn about Pino’s story. At a low point in his life, he contemplated suicide but had a change of mind. He prayed to God for a story he could get lost in. He learned about Pino that very night.

Italy was a country dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, and it influenced the people in and around Milan during this time. The Duomo, the cathedral in the center of Milan, is a building of hope and stability during the war. Father Re teaches the boys to give thanks every day and have faith in God. Father Re calls Jews “God’s children, whom He loves.”

The priest tells a Nazi that he is made in God’s image, but is not like God. When he is buried in an avalanche, Pino feels that Mary and God himself have betrayed him. Pino often prays for safety during his many dangerous missions. Several others cry out to God during trials.

A prisoner compares the gray men to the slaves in Egypt and calls Gen. Leyers pharaoh’s slave master. Cardinal Schuster gives a powerful Christmas sermon on Jesus’ command to “Let not your hearts be troubled.” He calls on the listeners to not be afraid of tyrants or armies.

Anna asks Pino if he thanked God while in the cathedral. He tells her he thanked God for her. After Anna is killed, Pino confesses his guilt in Anna’s death to the cardinal. Pino believes his cowardice was a sin that will send him to hell. Cardinal Schuster tells him that everyone has a God-given right to fight for his or her own survival. Even though Pino’s faith may have temporarily abandoned him, the cardinal assures him that it will, in time, return. A section of the book is titled “’Vengeance is mine,’ sayeth the Lord.”

After the war, Pino spent years begging daily for God’s forgiveness for failing Anna. Sometime later, along the seashore, Pino remembered her saying she tried to live in the moment and be grateful for each day. He thanked God for the time he had with her and was finally able to let her go.

Leyers became a devout churchgoer and paid for the construction of a church in the town in which he settled.

Other Belief Systems

Anna’s mother believed Anna had the evil eye and that she had caused her father’s death at sea. Her mother also believed Anna was responsible for her four miscarriages. She had priests perform exorcisms on her to cast out demons. Pino considers himself lucky when he survives the cinema bombing with only a cut on his cheek. He thinks himself lucky on several other occasions as well. He wishes Jewish refugees good luck after he helps them escape.

Authority Roles

Pino’s parents are Catholic and have brought him up in the church. They are hardworking and loving. They fiercely protect their family as much as they can during the war.

Father Re is a father figure in Pino’s life. He has dedicated his life to teaching young boys about God and helping them to grow into responsible young men. Although he protects the younger boys from harm and does not believe in violence, he does put Pino and the older boys in danger when he asks them to help guide Jews and Allied prisoners through the mountains.

Profanity & Violence

God’s name is used alone and with the words d–ned, Mother of, willing, oh my, oh dear, sake, name and thank. Jesus is used as an exclamation alone and with oh and oh sweet. The words s—, bulls—, h—, b–tard, b–ch and d–n are also used. Other objectionable words are the euphemism darn, as well as p— and whore.

Pino and Mimo have several brotherly scraps. Mimo bloodies Pino’s nose in one before Pino pins him to the floor. Leyers hits his mistress when he is drunk.

Depictions of the war include many graphic descriptions of violence. By the third chapter, Milan is bombed, and Pino’s cheek is cut open by falling debris. He sees dead bodies, including a young girl whose arm was blown off and a young boy whose mother weeps over him. Pino sees his friend’s little brother blown apart by a grenade. Another boy loses a hand and a third loses his eyes.

Partisans burst in on a New Year’s Eve party and demand money to fund their resistance. One man is clubbed to the floor when he tries to resist. Their leader, Tito, hits Pino in the stomach with the butt of his gun and kicks him. The partisans hold up Father Re. Tito hits Pino in the testicles with his gun. Pino kicks Tito to the ground and breaks his nose. Father Re keeps Pino from shooting Tito.

Pino sees a family friend executed with other resistance fighters in a firing squad. He describes the man’s death in detail. The Germans mount the heads of the fighters on fence posts. Pino must evade both German and partisan gunfire as he retrieves the body of a friend’s daughter from a disputed zone. He sees the back of his cousin’s head taken off by a bullet and watches Anna killed by a firing squad. He finds her bloody body in a church but he cannot remove her for a proper burial, as the mob will attack him for being a fascist sympathizer.

Pino watches a mob desecrate the bodies of Mussolini and his mistress. An old woman urinates on the mistress’s face. Another woman fires five bullets into Mussolini’s head. The two are strung up by their feet. A priest who tries to cover the mistress’s genitals is pelted with trash. Another fascist is shot to death under their bodies. There are many other detailed depictions of bombings, beatings, shootings and death throughout the book.

Sexual Content

Pino and Anna share several passionate kisses. Their first is in the kitchen of Dolly’s apartment. Anna sits on Pino’s lap as they kiss. They kiss several more times. They make love for the first time on Christmas Eve after sneaking a radio past Nazi guards. Pino thinks of her as a spirit, a perfect instrument of love.

Anna admits that night that she is a widow. She was married, made love to her husband for two days, and then he was shipped off to fight in Mussolini’s army where he died. Pino and Anna have sex several more times, but it is never graphically described. After their last sexual encounter, Pino tells Anna that it was the most amazing night of his life. She tells him the same.

Both Mussolini and Leyers have mistresses. Leyers and Dolly kiss. Leyers often spends the night in Dolly’s apartment.

Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments

Alcohol: Many characters drink wine. Pino gets drunk several times. Leyers gives him whiskey after they survive being strafed by an Allied plane. Leyers gets drunk several times. Pino and the American soldiers get drunk on grappa, a type of brandy.

Tobacco: A thankful man gives Pino a cigar. Alberto, Dolly and other characters smoke cigarettes.

War: Leyers tries to explain perspective to Pino. In Italy, the looting of the cities is looked on as a crime, but in Germany, Leyers is considered a hero for providing food to the starving German people. The brutality of war, from both sides, is vividly portrayed in the novel.

Catholic prayers: Pino prays the Hail Mary as he watches men die in a firing squad.

Fascism: A Nazi colonel says that the Gestapo is like God. It hears all things.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book’s review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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