Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan: a Noble, Ordinary Hero

“They shared a long silence. ‘What do we do, Father?’

‘We have faith, Pino. We have faith and continue to do what is right.’”

Mark Sullivan, Beneath a Scarlet Sky

I’m deeply indebted to historical fiction as an entire genre, and owe a hearty thanks to some of these books that have reintroduced me to the wonder of storytelling this last year.

Among these more recent, great historical-fiction reads is Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Set in Italy near the end of World War II, this tale sends readers on a journey through the eyes of Pino Lella, an Italian teenager.

Pino. The boy who led a Jewish underground railroad movement and acted as a spy for Allied forces. Pino, the unsung hero who helped end a World War and lived most his life after quiet about it.

The Story

Pino Lella is only a teenager when Nazis overtake his home Milan. As the hand of the German forces grows stronger in his community, Pino is sent to live at a Catholic convent in the mountains.

Just after arriving to the convent, Pino is asked to lead Jewish refugees on secretive, strenuous hikes through the dangerous passes over the Alps and into the safe zone of Switzerland. For months, all though the winter and beyond, Pino operates this underground railroad leading dozens of people to safety over the treacherous passes of the mountains.

When Pino is summoned back home to be drafted for service, his family forces him to join German efforts in order to ride out the nearing end of the War. He protests at first, but what he soon discovers is an opportunity to serve as a spy for Allied forces as Pino becomes a personal driver for a Nazi general.

In this remarkable journey of courage and hope, Pino Lella affects the entire trajectory of the War by daily putting his life on the line for a cause bigger than himself. He falls in love, fiercely protects, and never gives up on the good that can be found in the world.

Here’s the Wild Thing: It’s a True Story

Beneath a Scarlet Sky was born after 11 years of extensive research by author Mark Sullivan, who estimates that 80%-90% of the story true. Over a decade of study, interviews, and simply being in Pino Lella’s presence culminated into this book. This is a treasure for us as there is a not a lot of written documentation of World War II in Italy. Who knows how many stories we’ve missed; even for Mr. Lella, his story had gone untold for decades.

This is Why I Love Historical Fiction

We can pick up a history textbook if we want to learn about WWII. But, there is something about storytelling that affects our brains in totally different ways. Suddenly we’re not just reading facts and summaries crammed on a few pages, but we’re in the story too.

We’re on our way to the market, walking past Nazi generals with guns in hands and swastikas banded. We’re knocked to the ground, covering our ears at the ear-splitting sound of explosion around us. We’re hiking snow trails across the Alps, leading refugees to safety. Suddenly, we are the refugee, fleeing for safety while wearing a target on our back.

I gained more empathy for the effects of WWII in this book than I ever did reading countless textbook pages. By delving into Pino’s story, I met Nazis and Jewish refugees. My tears fell at the weight of it all, and I rejoiced at the victories. No longer was WWII a black and white stain on our world’s story, but it became this nuanced tapestry made up of real people who fought for its end in indescribable ways.

You can’t learn that in a textbook. It takes the patience of hearing a story to gain that sort of understanding.

“But we can’t stop loving our fellow man, Pino, because we’re frightened. If we lose love, all is lost.”

Mark Sullivan

Retracing the Steps: a Guide for Reading

As I read, I retraced the steps of Pino by looking at maps and searching photos. I found what I believe is the Catholic convent he lived in (or dang close to it). I saw the lake he led his underground railroad around. I saw his home city, and the cathedral that represented hope and safety for him. I saw the same streets where Pino Lella fell in love, wept, witnessed atrocities, and fought for restoration.

With each discovery, as I looked at each picture and Google earth image, I thought, “He was there. He stood there. He stood up for his country and for peace there.”

This is another beautiful opportunity historical fiction grants us. I created a Pinterest board of photos and links that I found helpful while reading. For me, it made the reading so much richer as I really delved into Italy in WWII. If that sounds fun and nerdy to you too, check out the board to see some of the sights referenced in the story.

Final Word: an Excellent Five Stars

If you look for them, you’ll certainly find the critics of this book. But as far as I’m concerned, this was an excellent read and I plan to keep it on my shelf and recommend to others for years to come. Mark Sullivan honored the story of Pino Lella with his careful crafting of this quiet hero’s journey; he did the world a service by sharing it.

I will admit: it wasn’t Sullivan’s writing style that captivated me. I wasn’t drawn to this book because it boasts incredible dialogue or beautifully moving poetic style. Actually, what drew me in was the unavoidable message at the center of every page that every breathe we have left is a breath of purpose.

Even the ordinary breaths.

Pino Lella thought his story was ordinary. Plain. Not worth rehashing. But here is the truth: there are no ordinary days that don’t make a difference. He showed us that the most remarkable stories happen by taking one step after another, making decisions one at a time. We could be living in the middle of a World War, saving lives and communicating critical information, and never realize the impact we’re making.

Pino Lella’s story promises us that even in the darkest of days love is there. His story is evidence that there is more good at work than bad. Don’t get me wrong – times are tough. But, we have a choice to make. We can either be victimized by it, or fight courageously to see the good.

Every step we walk has the power to change the entire trajectory of someone’s future. Let’s dare believe that. And as we take our steps, one after the other, we follow that young Italian’s example. We continue –

to have faith,

to do what is right,

and above all,

find the strength to believe there is good woven in every day

“You know, my young friend, I will be ninety years old next year, and life is still a constant surprise to me. We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed.”

Pino Lella

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan: an Illustration of the Resiliency of Refugee Children

Say You’re One of Them | Author: Uwem Akpan | Genre: Fiction

Paperback: 361 | Publisher: Back Bay Books (2008) | ISBN: 978-0-316-08637-0

“It was a time just to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, and how to live together.”

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, page 254

This book is not at all what I thought. But it had Oprah’s Book Club sticker on it, so I should have expected it to pummel my heart to pieces.

In a collection of 5 short stories, Akpan guides us through an emotional journey of life as an African child in the trenches of war and conflict, running and genocide, slavery and street life. Told through the perspective of children, Akpan places us in kid shoes walking through adult situations.

In a genius, moving work, Akpan has fictionalized some of the most real, complex conflicts plaguing the African continent. In doing so, he has placed us directly into places we only see in clips on a screen or read brief headlines about.

For those of us who are hundreds and hundreds of miles away, he has made these situations real through the art of storytelling. And I both hate him and love him for that.

A Writing Style That Honors His Culture

Akpan has a unique style, and each page flows poetically. His stories have given me a higher caliber for the fiction I read. Some of the most recent ficion I’ve gotten into suddenly feels lame compared to the way Say You’re One of Them reads.

Also, if you’re interested in world languages, this one is for you. Akpan has written true to the language of the people in his story. The dialogue can be tricky to follow, as its written in broken English and certainly doesn’t follow an accurate grammar. But, the speech is true to what we might actually hear if speaking to a nonnative English speaker.

Plus, Akpan has sprinkled in plenty of phrases and words in the heart language of his characters. Which certainly makes for a more interesting read, but is also more difficult to follow at times. I love that he has chosen to honor his fellow Africans by letting us into their own language.

I Expected Happy Endings

I guess I thought this would flow through one cohesive story, or at least that each chapter would relate to one another in one way. I was several pages into the second “chapter” before I realized that there was no connection between that “chapter” and the first.

Instead, I had just read a story. And the ending to it surely didn’t feel complete. I was still looking for the ending from the first “chapter” while I was reading the second, which I eventually realized was not a chapter but a whole different story in and of itself.

This was hard to grapple with. Man, I love a good happy ending with some kind of resolution. However, this book did not deliver that. In fact, none of the stories have an ending that you’d hope for.

But I can’t blame Akpan for that.

He is simply telling us about real situations on the African continent. As hard as it is to stomach, we have been waiting for innumerable conflicts to find closure for generations; they just haven’t yet.

I Left Feeling Both Completely Built and Torn

As a Westerner living in a developed world, reading through a lens of nearly uneducated children living in total poverty was hard.

I was inspired by the resiliency of the kids, but also emotionally depleted to witness their struggles. Their innocence reigned brilliantly, and though I celebrated that, it was heart-wrenching to see that same innocence violated.

I rooted for the kids, and felt a sense of pride when they succeeded in a small victory. I soon realized that these small spurts of victory were always quickly followed by a harder to defeat.

I was amazed by the conditions in which these families live in – huts, limited food, no shoes on their feet or vehicles to drive – and felt challenged to live on less too. But then I felt their loss when what little they had was taken away. I saw what riches can do to a person, especially a poverty-stricken person, and was confused about it.

Especially in the Largest Refugee Crisis in Modern History…

As a person who works with refugee families every day, I have to say: this book is profound because of the perspective it gives to the background of a refugee.

A refugee is a person who has fled their home based on well-grounded fear of persecution, war, genocide, or natural disaster. Usually because of things out of their control, such as race, ethnicity, religious or political preferences. It’s easy to skim through that definition, until you let it sink in, and start really considering what the journey of a refugee looks like.

Especially as the U.S. commits to bringing a record low number of refugees into the States this year, I believe reading the stories of fleeing is more important now than it has ever been. I don’t have to clarify this, but I will: there is a gross misunderstanding of who a refugee actually is.

Refugees are not the enemy. They are the targeted, the unwanted, the hated, the ones pushed aside for the selfish, horrifying gain of others. They are, really, people born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Refugees are the vulnerable, making decisions from a place of survival without the time, energy, or resources to consider thriving.

And when unprotected children are placed in this number of chaos and terror, and when we read the story of kids running away totally alone from something they don’t even understand, it creates a different kind of compassion within us.

It’s a compassion that moves with an urgency to see justice against their enemies (who are really our enemies too), and a passion to bring them into a fold of protection. To guard them, and restore them back to believing that they are valuable and welcomed. Have some of the world’s children ever heard that?

No, I can’t solve all the world conflicts and I can’t help all the millions of refugees displaced from their homes now. I can’t even help the thousands who will flee their homes today alone. I don’t mean to be rude, but I doubt you can either.

But, what we can do is seek to understand their story and make it known. I can tell the stories of people who have courageously left, and made impossible decisions just to take a few more breaths. I can tell you about the resiliency of the most vulnerable people in the world today, and through their journeys, show you just a glimpse of their passion for life and desire for safety.

Sometimes the most powerful, and honest, form of advocacy is storytelling.

In Short: Read It, but Read with Wisdom

The dialogue and language barriers will force you to read this more slowly. Be okay with that. Honestly, it’s a blessing because these stories are too emotionally difficult to rush through.

Every story shook me, some more violently than others. Akpan spared us many details, but still painted a picture of what it feels like to ride a refugee bus or to watch a sister fall into prostitution. He illustrated what could possibly lead an uncle to sell his family into slavery, and what it truly feels like to be a Muslim on a bus full of Christians and wizards.

We think we know about these things; we don’t have a clue.

I left each page feeling emotionally spent. When I finished the last story, I was grumpy. I gave Travis short and snappy responses, and was acting like a brat for at least an hour on a road trip with my family. Then it clicked: I have to process this. I have to give myself time to settle these feelings, and to recover from this book.

It was a hard read.

But, it’s important too. I applaud Akpan for giving us a glimpse into lives we can barely imagine. Say You’re One of Them is beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring – it’s all of this, and more, because of the voice it gives to the unheard voices and the untold stories.

And these small – yet not so small – voices unify us with a passion to create a safer world for children to live in. I’m going to meet my own refugee kids at after school today a little more gently and compassion filled, because Akpan has told a story of their history that they’ve yet to understand. The journey to that realization is not easy, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit that has changed my perspective.

I thought I understood the journey of a refugee, but I didn’t have a clue. Thank you, Uwem Akpan, for penning these hard words. I am better for it.

Charlotte’s Web: A Life-Giving Classic That Will Make the World Feel Like a Miracle

Charlotte’s Web | Author: E.B. White | Genre: Children’s Fiction

Paperback: 184 | Publisher: Harper Collins Publishers (April 10, 2012) | ISBN: 0739477072

Rating: 5/5

In case you don’t know, I coordinate an after school program for elementary refugee students. I literally get paid to play games in order to help kids practice English. Amazing, right? So several weeks ago, when I was in the trenches of planning for the school year, I found myself following a rabbit trail of looking at children’s books. When I finally found my way back, I had a new Good Reads list with 40 titles on it. I call it “Kiddos.”

One of these titles? Charlotte’s Web. I realized I had never read this classic before, and knew that had to change. So when I was at the library just a couple days later with an adult ESL student, I modeled the check-out process with none other than Charlotte’s Web.

I had no idea when I picked this book off the shelf how endearing Charlotte would become to me, or how Wilbur would soften my heart. I didn’t expect for Templeton to frustrate me, and to giggle at Wilbur and Charlotte’s interactions in their friendship. The book was incredible, weaving together truths of friendship and mysterious kindness, and to all my adult friends – I have to recommend it to you. It will take you only a few hours to read, and you’ll be richer for it.

“Wilbur ate heartily. He planned to leave half a noodle and a few drops of milk for Templeton. Then he remembered that the rat had been useful in saving Charlotte’s life, and that Charlotte was trying to save his life. So he left a whole noodle, instead of a half.”

I have to recommend it because it will make you giggle. The quirks of the farm animals and their interactions, the human characters’ responses to Charlotte’s web, the comments of Wilbur – it’s all just as enjoyable for children as adults. It’s an innocent kind of humor that offers a childlike humor and wonder, filling you with an easy comfort that honestly, you’ve probably missed and not even realized it.

And in all the humor, I didn’t expect to see life as a miraculous wonder. There’s a particular scene where Mrs. Arable goes to the doctor to inquire whether or not she should be concerned about her daughter, Fern’s, hanging around the barn with all the animals. It’s comical, a bit awkard, but also inspiring. The doctor’s response is ingenius. He simply makes the point that life is miracle, and that the spiders know how to make a web without being taught is incredible. And I think that Dr. Dorian’s entire point in the scene is this: life is a miracle.

Don’t get so caught up in yourself that you forget to look up and around. There is an entire world buzzing around you – but you’re missing it when you live in fear and retort criticism of it all. The world is vastly more intricate than you or I can see; we are not the only way of living. Humanity is not the only way of life. There are creatures and critters crawling about, a sky hanging above, a solid ground below. It’s wonderful, really, and to all my adult friends: it’s okay to live in wonder of it all, paying attention and looking for the miracles all around.

“Wilbur blushed. ‘But I’m not terrific, Charlotte. I’m just about average for a pig.’ ‘You’re terrific as far as I’m concerned,’ replied Charlotte, sweetly, ‘and that’s what counts. You’re my best friend, and I think you’re sensational. Now stop arguing and go get some sleep!’”

I didn’t expect to learn about friendship. True friendship uplifts, encourages, and even renames. We all need someone to see us for who we are, even we don’t feel it. Unconditional love and friendship looks us at us, in all our dirt and fear, and say, “Even so, I think you are fantastic.”

Love like this doesn’t expect us to come perfect, but is eager to welcome us despite our shortcomings. It assures us that we are valuable simply for existing – no prerequisites needed. We’re here and that’s miraculous. We can rest in that. We can also call that out in others.

“Ever since the spider had befriended him, he had done his best to live up to his reputation. When’s Charlotte’s web said SOME PIG, Wilbur had tried hard to look like some pig. When Charlotte’s web said TERRIFIC, Wilbur had tried to look terrific. And now that the web said RADIANT, he did everything possible to make himself glow.”

Most of all, I’m not sure I expected to be shown the power of words. The language we use when talking to people will affect them; the words we use to describe them will change them. The other barn critters saw Wilbur as a lame, smelly pig heading for the smoker. And he believed it. He was going to accept that fate. But then Charlotte saw something special in him, and she spoke what she saw over him. When she did, it changed the way he even carried himself. She and her 8 little legs changed what Wilbur believed of himself. He lived up to what his friend said of him.

That’s incredible.

It makes me wonder: what do I speak over people? Is it life-giving, or condemning? Is it helpful and true, or unkind and belittling? I better answer honestly, because my words will make a difference – whether for good or bad – in someone’s life today. And I hope it’s a good one.

You might feel above reading a children’s book, but none of us are exempt from learning these lessons of kind words, friendship, and shifting the way we view life. In fact, some of us need a kid’s book to show us that simply; I’m one of them. Thank you, Charlotte’s Web, for bringing me back to the wonder of childhood and learning to live in the world again.

And to Charlotte – thank you for setting an example of how to be a true friend and a good writer. I want to be both.