“Why did you join?”
“It doesn’t matter. Everyone has a different story. A German soldier shoots two men, and their widows, who never even liked each other before, find they are best friends. They start a little band of resistance. And they meet another woman whose father was killed, and she bands with them. And another woman who was raped by a Nazi officer, and she bands with them. And the girl who watched her mother get raped. And the girl who watched her brother get arrested and dragged away. Everyone has a personal story. But in the end, they’re all the same.” (from Fire in the Hills, pages 92-93)
Back in August, I reviewed Donna Jo Napoli’s World War II novel for young adults, Stones in Water. Napoli tells the story of Roberto, a young boy from Venice, Italy, who goes to the cinema with his brother and some friends, and the Germans come in and round up all the boys and transport them to work camps. Roberto successfully escapes from a work camp in the Ukraine, but he must make his way on foot back to Venice. While I really enjoyed Stones in Water, I was a little frustrated with the open ending, and I was thrilled when Napoli e-mailed me to say there was a sequel called Fire in the Hills.
Fire in the Hills opens with Roberto still hoping to return to Venice (Note: I’m not telling you anything big or giving away the end to Stones in Water). He’s finally made it to Italy, but the German occupation means his hardships are far from over. Roberto is alone and hungry, and while he’s grown up a lot since his capture, he’s really still a child. He wants most to get back to his parents, learn what happened to his brother, and simply be safe. However, he’s roaming through Italy depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. Roberto is recaptured by the Germans and eventually freed by resistance fighters, whose family takes him in. While staying with this family, he meets Volpe Rossa (“red fox”), a young girl who is a member of the partigiani, the Italian resistance movement. Roberto decides to reassess his priorities, putting his desire to see an end to the war above his desire to stay safe, and he embarks on a journey with Volpe Rossa and becomes Lupo (“wolf”). As Lupo, he goes on many missions, mainly delivering messages and weapons to other resistance fighters -- all as he tries to make his way back home.
Fire in the Hills is full of action and tension, and every time Lupo and Volpe Rossa came in contact with the Nazis, I was on the edge of my seat. I’d grown attached to Lupo, and I could feel his fear. I loved the character of Volpe Rossa, a young woman wise beyond her years, a leader with great strength. She knows how to use her femininity and her beauty to her advantage and to advance the cause -- and no matter what happens, she doesn’t want to be viewed as a helpless girl. Napoli provides a lot of interesting details about the Italian resistance, emphasizing the role women played in helping bring the war to a close. She also brilliantly captures the innocence of Lupo, his gentleness and respect for humanity, which he retains despite all of the horrific things he has witnessed.
Fire in the Hills is a wonderful conclusion to the story begun in Stones in Water, but it is a standalone book. Napoli weaves the major events of Stones in Water into the narrative, so readers have enough information about Roberto and his experiences since the cinema roundup that they shouldn’t feel lost. While classified as a YA novel, I would recommend this one for mature YA readers. There is more violence than the previous book, and these scenes might be too much for middle-grade readers. (Personally, I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old daughter read this book yet, and I think I’d even wait a year or two before giving her my copy of Stones in Water. But I definitely will recommend these to her at some point.)
These are perfect books if you like historical fiction and would like to learn a little about the German occupation of Italy and the Italian resistance through the eyes of a young boy directly affected by the war. They are short, but powerful, and because they are geared toward the YA market, they aren’t overwhelming in terms of graphic details.
Fire in the Hills is my 24th book for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations. I think I'm slowing down with this challenge, but there are so many more WWII books I want to read before the end of the year!
Disclosure: I borrowed Fire in the Hills from the library.