Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan: a Noble, Ordinary Hero

“They shared a long silence. ‘What do we do, Father?’

‘We have faith, Pino. We have faith and continue to do what is right.’”

Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I’m deeply indebted to historical fiction as an entire genre, and owe a hearty thanks to some of these books that have reintroduced me to the wonder of storytelling this last year.

Among these more recent, great historical-fiction reads is Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Set in Italy near the end of World War II, this tale sends readers on a journey through the eyes of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager.

Pino. The boy who led a Jewish underground railroad movement and acted as a spy for Allied forces. Pino, the unsung hero who helped end a World War and lived most his life after quiet about it.

The Story

Pino Lella is only a teenager when Nazis overtake his home Milan. As the hand of the German forces grows stronger in his community, Pino is sent to live at a Catholic convent in the mountains.

Just after arriving to the convent, Pino is asked to lead Jewish refugees on secretive, strenuous hikes through the dangerous passes over the Alps and into the safe zone of Switzerland. For months, all though the winter and beyond, Pino operates this underground railroad leading dozens of people to safety over the treacherous passes of the mountains.

When Pino is summoned back home to be drafted for service, his family forces him to join German efforts in order to ride out the nearing end of the War. He protests at first, but what he soon discovers is an opportunity to serve as a spy for Allied forces as Pino becomes a personal driver for a Nazi general.

In this remarkable journey of courage and hope, Pino Lella affects the entire trajectory of the War by daily putting his life on the line for a cause bigger than himself. He falls in love, fiercely protects, and never gives up on the good that can be found in the world.

Here’s the Wild Thing: It’s a True Story

Beneath a Scarlet Sky was born after 11 years of extensive research by author Mark Sullivan, who estimates that 80%-90% of the story true. Over a decade of study, interviews, and simply being in Pino Lella’s presence culminated into this book. This is a treasure for us as there is a not a lot of written documentation of World War II in Italy. Who knows how many stories we’ve missed; even for Mr. Lella, his story had gone untold for decades.

This is Why I Love Historical Fiction

We can pick up a history textbook if we want to learn about WWII. But, there is something about storytelling that affects our brains in totally different ways. Suddenly we’re not just reading facts and summaries crammed on a few pages, but we’re in the story too.

We’re on our way to the market, walking past Nazi generals with guns in hands and swastikas banded. We’re knocked to the ground, covering our ears at the ear-splitting sound of explosion around us. We’re hiking snow trails across the Alps, leading refugees to safety. Suddenly, we are the refugee, fleeing for safety while wearing a target on our back.

I gained more empathy for the effects of WWII in this book than I ever did reading countless textbook pages. By delving into Pino’s story, I met Nazis and Jewish refugees. My tears fell at the weight of it all, and I rejoiced at the victories. No longer was WWII a black and white stain on our world’s story, but it became this nuanced tapestry made up of real people who fought for its end in indescribable ways.

You can’t learn that in a textbook. It takes the patience of hearing a story to gain that sort of understanding.

“But we can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost.”

Mark Sullivan

Retracing the Steps: a Guide for Reading

As I read, I retraced the steps of Pino by looking at maps and searching photos. I found what I believe is the Catholic convent he lived in (or dang close to it). I saw the lake he led his underground railroad around. I saw his home city, and the cathedral that represented hope and safety for him. I saw the same streets where Pino Lella fell in love, wept, witnessed atrocities, and fought for restoration.

With each discovery, as I looked at each picture and Google earth image, I thought, “He was there. He stood there. He stood up for his country and for peace there.”

This is another beautiful opportunity historical fiction grants us. I created a Pinterest board of photos and links that I found helpful while reading. For me, it made the reading so much richer as I really delved into Italy in WWII. If that sounds fun and nerdy to you too, check out the board to see some of the sights referenced in the story.

Final Word: an Excellent Five Stars

If you look for them, you’ll certainly find the critics of this book. But as far as I’m concerned, this was an excellent read and I plan to keep it on my shelf and recommend to others for years to come. Mark Sullivan honored the story of Pino Lella with his careful crafting of this quiet hero’s journey; he did the world a service by sharing it.

I will admit: it wasn’t Sullivan’s writing style that captivated me. I wasn’t drawn to this book because it boasts incredible dialogue or beautifully moving poetic style. Actually, what drew me in was the unavoidable message at the center of every page that every breathe we have left is a breath of purpose.

Even the ordinary breaths.

Pino Lella thought his story was ordinary. Plain. Not worth rehashing. But here is the truth: there are no ordinary days that don’t make a difference. He showed us that the most remarkable stories happen by taking one step after another, making decisions one at a time. We could be living in the middle of a World War, saving lives and communicating critical information, and never realize the impact we’re making.

Pino Lella’s story promises us that even in the darkest of days love is there. His story is evidence that there is more good at work than bad. Don’t get me wrong – times are tough. But, we have a choice to make. We can either be victimized by it, or fight courageously to see the good.

Every step we walk has the power to change the entire trajectory of someone’s future. Let’s dare believe that. And as we take our steps, one after the other, we follow that young Italian’s example. We continue –

to have faith,

to do what is right,

and above all,

find the strength to believe there is good woven in every day

“You know, my young friend, I will be ninety years old next year, and life is still a constant surprise to me. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed.”

Pino Lella

Charlotte’s Web: A Life-Giving Classic That Will Make the World Feel Like a Miracle

Charlotte’s Web | Author: E.B. White | Genre: Children’s Fiction

Paperback: 184 | Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers (April 10, 2012) | ISBN: 0739477072

Rating: 5/5

In case you don’t know, I coordinate an after school program for elementary refugee students. I literally get paid to play games in order to help kids practice English. Amazing, right? So several weeks ago, when I was in the trenches of planning for the school year, I found myself following a rabbit trail of looking at children’s books. When I finally found my way back, I had a new Good Reads list with 40 titles on it. I call it “Kiddos.”

One of these titles? Charlotte’s Web. I realized I had never read this classic before, and knew that had to change. So when I was at the library just a couple days later with an adult ESL student, I modeled the check-out process with none other than Charlotte’s Web.

I had no idea when I picked this book off the shelf how endearing Charlotte would become to me, or how Wilbur would soften my heart. I didn’t expect for Templeton to frustrate me, and to giggle at Wilbur and Charlotte’s interactions in their friendship. The book was incredible, weaving together truths of friendship and mysterious kindness, and to all my adult friends – I have to recommend it to you. It will take you only a few hours to read, and you’ll be richer for it.

“Wilbur ate heartily. He planned to leave half a noodle and a few drops of milk for Templeton. Then he remembered that the rat had been useful in saving Charlotte’s life, and that Charlotte was trying to save his life. So he left a whole noodle, instead of a half.”

I have to recommend it because it will make you giggle. The quirks of the farm animals and their interactions, the human characters’ responses to Charlotte’s web, the comments of Wilbur – it’s all just as enjoyable for children as adults. It’s an innocent kind of humor that offers a childlike humor and wonder, filling you with an easy comfort that honestly, you’ve probably missed and not even realized it.

And in all the humor, I didn’t expect to see life as a miraculous wonder. There’s a particular scene where Mrs. Arable goes to the doctor to inquire whether or not she should be concerned about her daughter, Fern’s, hanging around the barn with all the animals. It’s comical, a bit awkard, but also inspiring. The doctor’s response is ingenius. He simply makes the point that life is miracle, and that the spiders know how to make a web without being taught is incredible. And I think that Dr. Dorian’s entire point in the scene is this: life is a miracle.

Don’t get so caught up in yourself that you forget to look up and around. There is an entire world buzzing around you – but you’re missing it when you live in fear and retort criticism of it all. The world is vastly more intricate than you or I can see; we are not the only way of living. Humanity is not the only way of life. There are creatures and critters crawling about, a sky hanging above, a solid ground below. It’s wonderful, really, and to all my adult friends: it’s okay to live in wonder of it all, paying attention and looking for the miracles all around.

“Wilbur blushed. ‘But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig.’ ‘You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,’ replied Charlotte, sweetly, ‘and that’s what counts. You’re my best friend, and I think you’re sensational. Now stop arguing and go get some sleep!’”

I didn’t expect to learn about friendship. True friendship uplifts, encourages, and even renames. We all need someone to see us for who we are, even we don’t feel it. Unconditional love and friendship looks us at us, in all our dirt and fear, and say, “Even so, I think you are fantastic.”

Love like this doesn’t expect us to come perfect, but is eager to welcome us despite our shortcomings. It assures us that we are valuable simply for existing – no prerequisites needed. We’re here and that’s miraculous. We can rest in that. We can also call that out in others.

“Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When’s Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”

Most of all, I’m not sure I expected to be shown the power of words. The language we use when talking to people will affect them; the words we use to describe them will change them. The other barn critters saw Wilbur as a lame, smelly pig heading for the smoker. And he believed it. He was going to accept that fate. But then Charlotte saw something special in him, and she spoke what she saw over him. When she did, it changed the way he even carried himself. She and her 8 little legs changed what Wilbur believed of himself. He lived up to what his friend said of him.

That’s incredible.

It makes me wonder: what do I speak over people? Is it life-giving, or condemning? Is it helpful and true, or unkind and belittling? I better answer honestly, because my words will make a difference – whether for good or bad – in someone’s life today. And I hope it’s a good one.

You might feel above reading a children’s book, but none of us are exempt from learning these lessons of kind words, friendship, and shifting the way we view life. In fact, some of us need a kid’s book to show us that simply; I’m one of them. Thank you, Charlotte’s Web, for bringing me back to the wonder of childhood and learning to live in the world again.

And to Charlotte – thank you for setting an example of how to be a true friend and a good writer. I want to be both.

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus: A Quick Read That’s Actually Believable

One of Us Is Lying | Author: Karen M. McManus | Genre: YA Mystery, Fiction

Hardcover: 416 pages | Publisher: Delacorte Press (May 30, 2017) | ISBN: 1524714682

Rating: 4/5

“I know what it’s like to tell yourself a lie so often that it becomes the truth.” 

A gossip app. An unlikely bunch of people in the same room. A death. Surprising friendships, breakups, and hook ups. And people searching to clear their name, even when it means admitting to the secrets they thought would stay buried. Karen M. Manus, in her YA Mystery One of Us is Lying, weaves high school stereotypes into a surprising story of belonging, changing, and fessing up by way of a framed murder.

When a group of students are put into detention, they think their biggest problem is proving to the teacher why they aren’t supposed to be in there and how there’s been a mistake. They have no idea that in minutes, when the creator of a rank student body gossip app, Simon, falls over dead, they will become murder suspects attempting to prove to the law and the watching world that they didn’t do it.

The only problem is that the law is determined to prove one of these kids guilty. And the media eats the case, following the kids around and updating the world on the latest happenings in the case without regard for what might actually be true.

Also. As if warding off the media and fighting the justice system isn’t challenging enough, high schoolers are mean and these murder suspects have their peers to deal with too, so there’s that.

You think that throughout the story you are reading about kids solving a murder. And you are. But what you are truly uncovering in this tale is people owning up to the truth, falling in love, and dealing with the firsthand sting of the media and how crazy the public is for a juicy story.

As with any YA thriller, I often find myself thinking while reading, “Okay, but would this really happen? Also, how old are these kids anyways? Because this is not what my life looked like at 18.”

I usually expect that in this genre. For the sake of keeping the pages turning, I can look past that. I can put my creative hat on, and play along with the author’s story; I was happy to do that for One of Us is Lying. The story felt more believable than others I’ve read.

Although I didn’t particularly feel connected to some of the characters and some moments that were supposed to be monumental felt unsurprising, I found this book to be a low stakes, easy read. There’s nothing too heavy – well, other than solving a murder – being dealt with, and you know, life is hard enough. Sometimes I just need a page turning story to follow without much thought.

Certainly, if you wanted to heavily discuss socio-economic status and the justice of the law, there are plenty of conversations that you could start using this book. However, I took this opportunity to read a story and to make a few quick points about life in the 21st century.

“She’s a princess and you’re a jock,” he says. He thrusts his chin toward Bronwyn, then at Nate. “And you’re a brain. And you’re a criminal. You’re all walking teen-movie stereotypes.” 

Each character enters the story with a predictable caricature. It’s the same ole’ status quos we’ve been simplifying the high school experience into for decades. But as we dig a little closer, we see that there’s more to everyone than their positions and titles. And even further, we find that everyone has lied in some way to get and maintain their placement.

It’s interesting how willing we are to live in the darkness of a lie we’re not even happy about, when walking  in the light of the truth produces within us a richness we would have wanted sooner.

But I have to say: each of these kids, from the princess down to the criminal, own up to their story. They do. When their hiding is exposed, they take it. Honestly, I think that was the most surprising part of the story because I only recall a handful of people in my own life with that kind of integrity.

When they fessed up, they changed. They weren’t bound to their lies anymore, but were placed fully in the open where they were free and had nothing left to lose. Not even their reputation, and to hell with it anyway. Once they had the guts to leave the relationship or admit how they really got the passing Chemistry grade, they were formed into a bolder, more honest, more intriguing version of themselves.

No one is perfect, and things begin to change once we believe that. Not only of others, but of ourselves too. (Also, side note, the criminal was the most honest guy in the whole story. Take that for what you will.) 

“I stand and hold out my hand. She gives me a skeptical look, but takes it and lets me pull her to her feet. I put my other hand in the air. ‘Bronwyn Rojas, I solemnly swear not to murder you today or at any point in the future. Deal?’
‘You’re ridiculous,’ she mutters, going even redder.
‘It concerns me you’re avoiding a promise not to murder me.” 

Okay, the love story. The classic rich girl falls for the poor boy tale. The one where she stays up late on the phone when she should have been studying, and he stops selling drugs. I’m really doing it an injustice because it’s way more adorable on the pages.

It’s an innocent love story between two murder suspects, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Manus keeps it clean, and uses the two to help each other grow out of who they thought they had to be. I appreciated that.

“Like we’re some kind of hip high school murder club without a care in the world.” 

It’s, like, really freaky how much we lean on the media to give us the truth today. We esteem it and follow it, as if it can do no wrong. But as Manus shows us, it can do so much wrong. For starters, it followed these kids around. Reporters waited after school and surrounded their homes. And for what? To get the latest report on a story? A story that people attached to, and treated like a reality show? Not cool.

And the fan base. Oh, my word. The public following the media reports were taking sides and picking teams of who they thought the murderer was. Suddenly these kids had fan pages on Facebook, and had to stay away from Twitter to avoid people’s comments.

It was like everyone watched a 5 minute report, and were suddenly experts on the nuances of the whole case. Suddenly there was no regard for the humanity of the people involved, and the embarrassment, confusion, chaos they were feeling. There wasn’t substantial support or encouragement offered to the suspects. The case, as a group of kids fought for the truth to be found and to save any hopes for their future, became trivialized; the watching public waited to see who would fall next like it was some kind of TV show.

It’s a mirror to our society’s response to news today. We hear the news and genuinely believe that the media just wants to help us and help everyone. We do. We follow it. We worship it to the point that the implications of what we’re hearing is totally detached from what really happened, on the altar of being in the know and hearing a good story. We don’t even consider that what we believe might be wrong.

It’s not that we just form opinions about stories in the media, but we state those opinions like fact. And really, assuming that we could possibly grasp the whole story – with all its sides, humans, and moving parts involved – in a matter of minutes is the most prideful thing we could do.

I can barely remember to put on deodorant in the mornings, much less solves a crime case. One of is Lying reminded me to humble myself, and not assume I know everything when it comes to people and stories. What you see is not the full truth; everyone carries baggage that we might not ever get to see or understand.

Everyone is motivated by something, and this book shows us that some motivations are better than others. With all that said, don’t believe everything ya hear, kids.

And while you’re at it, go check on your people. You might think they’re okay, but they might be battling demons and need helping finding the light again. Be the light.