This gripping, meticulously researched story (loosely based on the life of an actual survivor), set in Europe during WWII, is told from the point of view of a Venetian boy forced into war against his will. Roberto's quiet life as a gondolier's son ends abruptly the day he sneaks off to see a movie with his older brother and two friends, Memo and Samuele. German soldiers raid the theater and take the boys captive, and Roberto is immediately separated from his brother. Roberto and his two friends are carted by train across the border and quickly learn that although the Germans are allies, they consider the Italians dispensable (Nazi soldiers shoot three Italian boys on a train platform). Roberto is concerned for his own safety, but he is even more fearful for his Jewish friend Samuele (Roberto and Memo flank him when Samuele urinates, to hide his circumcision). When the train finally halts, Roberto and Samuele manage to stay together, while Memo is sent to a different camp. In the first half of the novel, Roberto describes the abominations he and Samuele both endure and witness as they are sent from one work camp to the next. At one, the boys build a large pen that the Germans later fill with Jews; horrified, Roberto puts himself at great risk to smuggle food daily through the barbed wire to a starving girl and her sister. The second half recounts Roberto's lone escape across Ukraine's barren landscape after Samuele dies fighting for a pair of German boots. Napoli's (Song of the Magdalene) graphic depiction of the boys' inhumane treatment counterpoints their quiet nurturing of each other's spirits. Roberto gives half his food rations to Samuele (because a boy who knows Samuele's secret is confiscating his food), and Samuele helps Roberto fall asleep by telling him comforting stories from the Old Testament. Napoli portrays a war in which resisters and deserters are the real heroes. In her choice of an innocent boy as first-person narrator, she gently leads readers through a gradual unfolding of events until they come face-to-face with the scope of the war's atrocities. Children will be riveted by Roberto's struggle to stay alive--and to aid others along the way--against enormous odds. And adults may never view WWII the same way again. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 09/29/1997 Release date: 10/01/1997 Genre: Children's
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