In the early 1940s, Italy under the Fascist dictator Mussolini joined Germany in its war against the Allies. In Venice, as in all of Italy, German soldiers were everywhere. It is against this background that Napoli weaves the powerful story of two young Venetian friends and their terrible experiences when used as forced labor in the far off Ukraine. Her portrayal of Roberto, the self-effacing younger son of a Venetian gondolier, and his steadfast friendship with Samuele, soon to be called Enzo to hide his Jewish origins from their Nazi "supervisors," is a triumph in modern young adult literature.
As it begins the novel includes two other characters: Sergio, Roberto's brother, a teen too young to be in the army but old enough to drill each Sunday, and Memo, the quick-witted friend who is the most street-smart of the younger three. All four boys are forcibly taken from a movie theater with other Venetian youth while watching an American Western. Sergio is immediately put with a group of older youths, and it is only through the keen observation of Memo that the boys quickly drop Samuele's name and start to call him "Enzo" and that Memo's plan to enable the younger three to stay together works—but only once. For Memo, too, is culled from their group, leaving Roberto and the new "Enzo" to begin their awful odyssey together.
The story moves quickly as the boys, now grouped with other young Italians from all parts of the country, each speaking different dialects, are moved by train through Munich east to the Ukraine. There they are to build landing fields for the Axis planes.
It is important for the friends to conceal Enzo's Jewish identity. Even though Sergio had the foresight to take off Enzo's yellow star signifying "Juden" and hide it before their trip to the movies, Samuele's circumcision, mostly a Jewish observance in prewar European countries, would be a sure death sentence if noticed by their German captors. Roberto finds the strength to awaken each day before Enzo and then wake his friend so that he can relieve himself before the other boys wake up. Then an exhausted Enzo stays awake each night, fighting...
(The entire section is 876 words.)