Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
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 sleep to tell the insomniac Roberto tales from the Old Testament, mythology, and even of his own invention, until his friend falls into a restless sleep.
Together they weather each new obstacle. Roberto, the pragmatic Catholic, early on decides to eat his daily ration of sausage, Friday or not. But Enzo, who has heard at the family table more fearful tales of the price paid by Jews in this awful war, holds fast to his people's dictates not to eat pork, even if it means awful privation. Both boys suffer terribly, but they always manage to look out for each other. Roberto takes Enzo's sausage in exchange for Enzo's hard-boiled egg or piece of hard cheese. Roberto steals and shares the fresh eggs that keep them stronger for a time. It is he who provides the diversion so that Enzo can strip naked to wash and swim in the water when the German guards order them to bathe.
But it is that swim that signals the beginning of the end for Enzo. When he floats dreamlike on the surface of the water— remembering Venice and his life at home— his circumcision is seen by another boy, who from that moment blackmails Enzo for his food ration. The daily sight of Polish- Jewish families starving behind a barbedwire enclosure the boys were forced to build and his final beating for his share of the boots retrieved from the frozen corpses of two German soldiers lead to Enzo's death. In his final moments, Enzo touches Roberto's chest and makes his friend promise to keep fighting "inside", where it counts, and to keep his, Enzo's, spirit alive in Roberto's heart. In his grief, Roberto defends his friend's corpse, buries him in the snow, and then walks away from the work site. His captors are unaware or just do not care.
With Enzo's death and his own successful escape, Roberto finds maturity and courage. From the snowy Ukraine, he plots a course by the sun south and west. Home is thousands of miles away, and the route is fraught with danger. When Roberto comes upon a small village whose inhabitants have been recently murdered by the Nazis, he befriends an orphaned boy. Together they set off. The young boy leads Roberto to a larger town, still untouched by war, but Roberto's ignorance of the language and his German boots confuse the villagers. Before the villagers can kill Roberto because they think him a German, he escapes. Accidentally stumbling upon a small boat, Roberto paddles toward Italy. Again he is in jeopardy when he meets an Italian deserter. After a time, Roberto and the deserter realize their value to each other and save each other's life in turn. They discover a common desire, to reach Italy, where they can join the partisans (the partigianos) and help end the war.
Based loosely—very loosely, says Napoli— on the experiences of a real partigiano, this novel portrays the extraordinary journey of two young friends into the world of war. It is an outstanding tale that is beautifully crafted.