In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hero on a Bicycle

Dear Annie,

Bitterblue sits on my shelves -- clearly it's time for me to read it soon.  I really liked Graceling, then felt Cashore had lost her touch completely with Fire, so I'm glad she came back to form with the third.

As long as we're on the subject of of moral culpability in difficult circumstances, I'll bring up an excellent new middle-grade book by Shirley Hughes, author of Dogger and many other wonderful picture books.  She has just published her first novel at the age of 84.

Hero on a Bicycle is set in Florence during the Nazi occupation --  siblings Paolo (13) and Costanza (16) are living in the city with their English mother; their Italian father has left, apparently to join the Resistance.  Paolo rides his bike after curfew, longing for the excitement of war, wishing to be heroic.  His sister spends vaguely uncomfortable time at the home of a family of collaborators, listening to records with a friend and meeting German officers.  When Paolo tries to find and join the Resistance, fighters ridicule him and steal his bicycle.  A commander stops the theft but growls at Paolo:
"Take it -- go home -- presto! -- as soon as you can.  And remember, you say nothing about this little adventure to your family -- nothing -- understood?"  Then he turned to go and gestured to the others to follow him.
   "But I want -- " said Paolo weakly.
   "Just get going -- now!"
   Paolo could resist no longer.  Forlorn, dejected, and utterly humiliated, he set off, bumping dangerously down the path on his bike and praying that the sharp stones wouldn't wreck his tires.
When he gets home, the Resistance has pressured his mother into hiding escaped Allied prisoners of war.  She tries to keep it from her children, but Costanza says, "Oh, Mamma -- we're not kids anymore.  Of course we can guess what's happening."  The story progresses through heart-stopping action -- saving a wounded Canadian soldier from the Nazis, aerial bombings, searches of their home, a near-execution in a town square, constant fear and confusion.  As the family comes under suspicion of helping the Resistance, it's clear someone has informed on them, and others are warning them.  A Nazi officer's genuine fondness for Costanza saves the family in one situation; a friend's need to save his own family endangers them.   Hughes even deals with that how-do-you-live-near-them-afterwards question that you brought up.

Both brother and sister have their moments of exceptional courage in terrifying situations.  Paolo and his bicycle help to save a man's life.  Later that day, as Germans are retreating in a chaotic scene, Costanza hears her name called on the road, thinking it's a soldier she's helped.
Then she realized that it was an even more familiar voice.
   "Paolo!" she shouted back.
   She could see his head bobbing along some way off.  He was waving.
   "Oh, Paolo -- thank God!"
   They struggled toward each other.  Paolo looked every bit as exhausted as she was, and he was clearly so close to tears that she stopped crying and hugged him.
   "Paolo -- where have you  been all this time?  Where's your bicycle?"
   "I lost it.  I mean, I gave it to someone."
It's a novel, they're teenagers, there's a war on -- but their reunion on the road made me think of the much younger David and Bella in Dogger.  In Dogger, Bella gives up a bear that she's won in order to retrieve her little brother's beloved stuffed animal.  It's an act of sibling caring and sacrifice that always brings a tear to my eye when I read it.  Hughes lets the reader feel the depth of caring between brother and sister.  And in Hero on a Bicycle, we feel the deep connection between Paolo and Costanza.  They start out on parallel tracks -- each in a separate internal world.  But having to face the realities of the war brings out what's been there all the time: intense caring and family feeling.  I feel these brave Anglo-Italians show us how sweet British David and Bella could have turned out.  A lovely reading experience.



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