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How does Donna Jo Napoli effectively create the world in her novel Stones in Water?

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A story involving children that sees them transported from their once-tranquil lives in Venice to the harshness of the Ukraine during the greatest war the world had ever experienced cannot help but draw sharp contrasts between settings and among moods.  Donna Jo Napoli’s story of Roberto, a young Italian boy, his brother and their friends, especially the Jewish boy Samuele, begins in Nazi-occupied Venice, but the full measure of cruelty associated with that occupation has not yet been realized.  The novel opens with Roberto and Memo negotiating the terms under which the latter will lend the former the money to gain entrance to a theater where an American Western is being screened – an increasingly rare occurrence following Italy’s declaration of war against the United States.  Roberto, and his older brother Sergio’s father operates a gondola on Venice’s network of scenic canals, a job universally recognized as associated with beauty and romance.  The arrangement between Roberto and Memo finally comes around to Memo’s desire to take a girl for a gondola ride on Roberto’s father’s boat: “Memo lifted his chin.  ‘When I get my next girl, you’ll give us a moonlight gondola ride.  Good deal, right?’”

The tranquil setting Napoli presents even extends to Venice’s Jewish neighborhood:

“Roberto ran through the back alleys and cut across the Jewish ghetto.  The ghetto was a calm and beautiful place, and Roberto made a point of passing through whenever he could.  In spring the smell of hot matzoh in the bakery made his mouth water.”

At this stage in Stones in Water, the connotation that will become associated with the phrase “Jewish ghetto” has not yet taken shape.  The boys at the center of Napoli’s story are still living a typical Venetian childhood. All that, of course, changes abruptly when the boys go to the movie theater to enjoy the Western.  The abrupt and dramatic change in setting begins with the terrifying scene of German soldiers entering the theater in a manner that immediately suggests the worst of our fears are being realized.  As Napoli describes the scene, a scene that will change the boys lives forever, the story begins the transition that will leave the reader in a state of perpetual anxiety and foreboding:

“The newsreel ended and the Western began.  Roberto stared up at the title and actors’ names on the huge screen.  Suddenly the lights went on.  Roberto blinked against the brightness.  Boys groaned and hooted in complaint.  He joined in.  The hoots mixed with screams.  German soldiers marched down the aisles.  Soldiers, here in the theater. Roberto focused on their stomping boots.  The boots seemed asurd in the early summer heat.  Everything was loud, deafening – the confusion made Roberto feel stupid and somehow distant, detached.  He forced himself to look around and pay attention.  Rifles swung from straps over the soldiers’ shoulders.  They shouted orders.  Half the audience was standing by now, pushing, trying to get out.”

The realities of the war have now been firmly entrenched in Napoli’s novel.  Within a few pages, she has taken the reader from a scene of young boys going to the movies, to their capture by German soldiers and the latter’s method of controlling their new-found slaves.  As one of the captured boys is shot in the head by a soldier, Napoli describes the scene graphically: “Red spray fanned out in front of the boys as he fell forward.”

Anyone who has ever seen a living being shot will recognize this description of “red spray” as being indicative of the violence associated with human or animal tissue being impacted by a high-caliber bullet.  The author’s descriptions of beauty and brutality and of the boys’ struggle to stay alive and together is rendered all too real by the explicitness with which she portrays events, including the transitions from the natural and overwhelming beauty of southern Europe to the flatness and poverty endemic of southern Russia and Ukraine.  Venice, of course, is a beautiful city with a magnificent history.  All due respect to Ukraine, it is not Venice, especially at the sites of some of the war’s most horrific fighting.  The German invasion of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian complicity in the capture, deportation and massacre of the region’s Jewish population is the setting for much of the novel’s action, and initially represents a bit of a reprieve for Roberto (“the soldiers were kinder here than in the last work camp.  It was as though being isolated in the wilds of Ukraine had made all of them comrades somehow.”)  As historians of the fighting in the occupied Soviet Union know, however, the combination of the inexplicable brutality of German troops and their Ukrainian allies and the harshest winters imaginable does not allow for a continuation of this apparent respite.

Napoli takes great pains in a novel intended for young readers to portray her settings and moods as accurately as possible.  The stark contrasts in settings plays a major role in her story, and the efforts by Samuele/Enzo and Roberto to keep the former’s religion concealed from the Germans and from other boys lends Stones in Winter a particular poignancy.

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