Of late, I’ve been reading–no devouring–books set during World War II, stories of individual lives within times of great turbulence. I began with:
—BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan, the war stories from Pino Lella’s perspective, set in war-torn Italy. Writer, Mark Sullivan, experienced a wonderful stroke of good luck when he discovered the stories about Pino Lella, and he also discovered that Mr. Lella was still alive, healthy, and living in Lesa, Italy. Sullivan set off for Italy to interview Pino who served as a spy for the Italian resistance during the war. Pino, a bright, yet un-presumptuous young man, became, at just eighteen years of age, the personal driver for General Hans Leyers, a top official in Hitler’s Third Reich, and the man primarily in charge of Nazi operations in Italy.
I became interested in this book because it had over 20,000 (five star) reviews. Yes, I wrote that correctly–over 20,000, five star reviews! With a reader-response like that, I HAD TO READ IT!
This book opened windows to the world for me. I knew very little about World War II in Italy, and had never heard of General Leyers or Pino Lella. Now, I feel like I’ve seen them with my own eyes. BENEATH A SCARLET SKY is a page-turner because there is conflict from the get-go, conflict in nearly all of Europe, conflict in Italy, conflict in the Lella’s household, and conflict within young Pino. Conflict is the very lifeblood of fiction–every novelist is advised to “open in conflict.” Also, because it’s historical fiction, the reader is transplanted to a different time/place and gets a guided tour of that time/place from someone who actually experienced the events.
Seems to me there are several things for the writer to observe here: 1. Times of conflict are good settings for fiction because the conflict(s) can be layered–conflict within society, within families, within individuals; 2. Be observant for potentially great interviews that might open a door to a great novel; 3. Explore archives for interesting pieces of history as well as interesting characters that lend themselves to great literature; 4. Don’t fear historical fiction–if it’s good, the reader will love it!
For the reader, there’s a pot of gold as well. The reader gets a history lesson embedded in a wonderfully told story. That’s the best possible way to learn history, and, in the case of BENEATH A SCARLET SKY, we have a personal guide (Pino Lella) who knew the people, places, and events firsthand.