Setting

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Stones in Water begins in the wartime Venice of the early 1940s. Young boys imitate the drilling of Italian soldiers, shout war slogans, and wish they, too, were old enough to carry a gun—if only on Sundays like their fathers and older brothers in the nearby campo. Jews are under new restrictions now. They have lived for hundreds of years in their quiet, beautiful ghetto, as in many European cities. But there are new things happening to the Venetian Jews, such as having to wear the yellow star on their arms now that the Germans and Italians are allies. Roberto's parents have told him to not go into a Jewish home, or even be seen talking to a Jew like his friend Samuele, who is in the same grade. But Roberto does not listen. Samuele is his friend—and this friendship is about to be deeply tested.

The two boys' trip to the movies catapults them into a horrific experience because the movie is a trap to conscript all the young boys attending as forced labor. They are not even allowed to return home for additional clothing or to bid their families goodbye. The conscripted boys' confusion turns quickly to terror when the Nazis cold-bloodedly shoot three boys on a train platform as an example to the others. The fact that their captors break them up into diverse groups from many towns only intensifies their fear. It is only because of their friend Memo's fast thinking that Roberto and Samuele are put in the same group— where they promise to keep together—no matter what might befall them.

The action of the novel quickly moves from the relative complacency of Venice to their day-to-day existence at the whim of their captors. As day follows day and month follows month, the insidious onset of winter in the East brings its own terrible hazards. The young boys were swept up in June—mainly dressed in shorts—others in light clothing suitable for home. In the Ukraine they steal potato sacks to serve as blankets and coats. The weak sicken and die. The strong are kept alive by the intensity with which they work and their daily fortification of bread, sausage, or egg, and water.

The once carefree boys dream of home, wonder if their parents know they are thinking abut them, and pity the families of Polish Jews for whom they have been forced to build barbed-wire enclosures. Napoli's description of a sadistic Nazi soldier who watches a little girl come close to the wire, which she touches as she laughs at a nearby dog and duckling, then cold-heartedly plucks, "like a musician plucks the string of a violin", the wire to make it snap back and rip the little girl's lips, tears at the reader's heartstrings. The proximity of the captive Jews affects Enzo and Roberto both, but the Jewish Enzo feels his people's plight more strongly. The boys both feed the children their food, but in every Jew Enzo sees himself and so begins his decline.

Enzo's death so numbs Roberto that he is able to walk away because he no longer fears the bullets that might follow. Thus he begins the impossible journey home, out of the cold and into the sun.

Literary Qualities

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As one would expect of a linguist, Napoli is a master wordsmith. The one- and two word titles of the chapters in Stone in Water mark it for a short, quick work: "The Film," "The Train," "The Picks," "Wasser," "Stones," "Boots," "The Woods," "Cold," "Life," "The Sled," "The Boy," "Boots Again," "Under Bushes," "Fever," and "Stones."...

(This entire section contains 277 words.)

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These simple words, if reread after finishing the story, will "throw" the reader back—like the quick crack of rifle shots—into the action of the novel.

Each word recalls images of the story. The film recalls that it was the seemingly innocent action of going to the movies that changed the boys' lives forever. The train is the vehicle that carried them so far from home. "Wasser" recalls the water and the German soldier who sloshed their daily ration into their tin cups. The picks and stones remind the reader of the rubble they lifted day after tortuous day. The boots are the harbinger of Enzo's death. The woods and cold remind the reader of Roberto's flight into life, as do the sled and the boy. When the boots recur it is to threaten Roberto. The bushes are the hiding place in which Roberto finds the boat. While the fever almost claims him, he wins a friend forever. Finally, the stones provide the richest imagery. In water they speak of remembrance, farewell, and a future yet to be built. Stones will always speak to Roberto of a little girl, a friend who wove him tales old and new, and the stones to build himself anew. Napoli's search for reality, apparent even in her spinning of fantasy, serves her exquisitely here.

Social Sensitivity

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The author's sure hand in the pages of this novel has given young readers a legacy of a time and places gone before—but, sadly, with no guarantee that they may not come again. There is a hope, though, that readers may also become "Stones in Water." Stones in Water is a novel of such sensitivity that it may inspire its readers to do all in their power to prevent Roberto and Samuele's story from happening again.

For Further Reference

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Flynn, Kitty. Horn Book Magazine 74,1 (January- February 1998): 77-78. Review of Stones in Water, citing Napoli's book as a "gripping coming-of-age novel about the human costs of war."

Kirkus Reviews (October 15,1997): 1585. Review of Stones in Water, calling Napoli's work "a powerful novel set in a vividly realized wartime milieu."

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