Updated: Oct 23, 2020
A mostly true story of real people caught up in a war
When truth mixes with story-telling
I love the idea of blending two opposite concepts to create something new, so it’s no surprise that I’m intrigued by historical fiction where facts blend with storytelling to create a new form of reality.
Mark Sullivan has expertly merged facts with compelling storytelling in his 2017 historical fiction novel, Beneath a Scarlet Sky, the story of Pino Lello, a young Italian man living under German occupation in Italy. It’s the story of ordinary citizens forced to cope with a war that’s invaded their city, presented moral dilemmas, and irrevocably changed their lives.
Pino Lello’s family are well-to-do leather merchants in Milan. When Allied forces start bombing Milan, trying to shake the Germans, Pino’s family sends him to a school for boys high up in the mountains where Father Re counteracts the evil of the Germans by training his boys to guide people over the mountains and into the safety of Switzerland.
Just before Pino turns eighteen, his family calls him home. On his birthday, he’ll be drafted into the German army. His mother and father convince Pino to enlist instead so that he can gain a position that doesn’t put him into combat. Through a series of events, Pino becomes the chauffeur for General Leyers, a top German commander in Italy and a close associate of Adolph Hitler. Working with his uncle Alberto, a member of the Italian resistance, Pino delivers crucial information learned through his duties driving General Leyers — information that aids in the fight against the Nazis. During the course of events, Pino finds his true love, performs acts of derring-do, and witnesses atrocities that scar him for life.
The truth of the matter
The storyline is true and is documented in numerous ways. Luckily, Pino Lello was still alive when Mark Sullivan got the idea to write, (more on this later) so he was able to spend several weeks with him, recording long conversations and eventually forming a deep friendship.
Sullivan investigated the story for several years from multiple perspectives including that of a retired priest, a forger who created false passports for Jews, and the daughter of General Leyers.
Research was culled from both the German and the U.S. archives as well as discussions with Holocaust historians and Resistance fighters.
In an interview about writing Beneath a Scarlet Sky, Sullivan discussed the importance of understanding characters and the events that impact them. He says,
The best historical writers get in the minds of their characters in accordance with their times and then plumb the human emotions that are timeless.
A book-buyer’s motivation
With so many books to choose from and so little time, I have to carefully consider what to purchase. My To Be Read (TBR) list is already so long that I’ll never get through it. Beneath a Scarlet Sky urged me to buy it in forceful ways I couldn’t resist:
It promised background on something I knew nothing about: the war in Italy. Like many of you, I’ve read dozens of Holocaust novels and absorbed stories about the French Resistance, the Belgian Resistance, and even the distant Guernsey Island in “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” (one of my favorites). But other than the name Mussolini, I knew nothing about what the war in Italy looked like.
The novel was based on “the true story of a forgotten hero,” who led refugees over the mountains to freedom in physical acts of courage, and who performed mental feats of tremendous strength by pretending to be a traitor to his country while spying on the enemy.
The writer in me responded to the first page of Sullivan’s book where he describes being so depressed by the events of his life that he is considering suicide by driving his car off a snowy mountain in Montana. The death of his brother, problems with his business, a book no one liked, and the verge of bankruptcy plagued him. But praying to “God and the Universe for help,” he pulled himself together and attended a dinner party in Bozeman, Montana where he heard the story of Pino Lello and decided it was a story that needed to be written.
Story versus reality
Sullivan’s opening page convinced me to buy this book — this story that had saved him.
The story of Pino Lello may have been more true than the preface by the author. Sullivan was born in 1958. He graduated college with an English degree in 1980, traveled with Peace Corps to Niger, lived with the Tuareg nomads in the Sahara, and returned to the states in 1982. He studied journalism at Northwestern University before moving to Washington, D.C., and pursuing investigative journalism for which he won several awards.
At the age of thirty, Sullivan got panicked that he would not live his dream of being a novelist and started writing fiction. A couple of years later, he moved to Utah and Wyoming to live among extreme skiers.
His first book, Hard News, published in 1995, received critical acclaim. His second book, the 1996 release of The Purification Ceremony, won multiple awards including being named as the best book of the year by the LA Times.
As a writer who’s been looking for an agent for two years, I struggle a bit with a guy who had numerous writing successes being this despondent. Other life issues were contributing to his depression.
Ten years after the release of The Purification Ceremony, Sullivan was struggling when the idea for Beneath a Scarlet Sky was dropped into his lap. The novel did change his life. He now is a frequent co-author with James Patterson, the bestselling writer of all time and has written five NYT bestsellers with him.n addition, Sullivan has also written a series of thrillers featuring Robin Monarch.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a Goodreads Choice Award Finalist for Historical Fiction and a 2017 Goodreads Top 20 Most-Read Book.
(The Monday Night Book Club loved it for the story, the scene, and the information it imparted in a readable format.)
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