Arts & crafts

Courage and Loss in Nazi-occupied Italy

21 Jun 2022 | Written by By Carolyn O'Donnell

For our next Book Club meeting on Friday 24th June at 2.30pm, we will be chatting about Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan. Whether you’ve heard of the book before or it’s new to you, enjoy this preview by Carolyn O’Donnell who gives a flavour of what to expect…

A bestseller on the Amazon charts that’s been translated into 37 languages, Beneath A Scarlet Sky is a 2017 novel telling the “true story of a forgotten war hero”. Soon after publication, the rights were snapped up for a film starring Spider-Man actor Tom Holland, and it’s currently in development as a six-part mini-series.

While many aspects of the Second World War have been examined in exhaustive detail, there are still stories to uncover from the Nazis’ occupation of Italy. This book is the result of research into what some historians have dubbed the “Forgotten Front”. 

In 1943, Pino Lella is a 17-year-old teenager living in Milan with his family. Obsessed with girls and music, he’s always hungry. When the Allied bombardment of northern Italy starts destroying the city, his parents send him to a boys’ camp in the Alps where he spent summers as a child. As winter arrives at Casa Alpina, Lella starts leading Jews and others fleeing the Nazis over the mountains to safety in neutral Switzerland. 

During one dramatic mission, he takes a pregnant violinist and her Stradivarius on his back and skis her to sanctuary. By now Pino is soon to turn 18, and his parents think he’ll be safer enlisting in the German army. He falls in love and into a role as driver for a senior Hitler aide, and becomes a spy for the Allies. 

Lella is a gifted young man, who by the age of 18 is a skilled mountaineer, skier, linguist, musician, driver and translator. He’s almost as fortunate as Forrest Gump when it comes to being in the right place at the right time to meet figures such as Mussolini, Cardinal Schuster, the Archbishop of Milan, and even the actor Gary Cooper. Pino had driving lessons from Alberto Ascari, who went on after the war to be a Formula One World Champion. 

Mark Sullivan, the book’s author, is a former investigative journalist who has written more than 20 novels and won writing awards. Sullivan discovered Lella’s tale at a low point in his own life, after his brother had just died and he was facing a series of personal crises. Hearing about Lella’s exploits at a dinner party revitalised him, and six weeks later Sullivan was interviewing Lella in Italy.

Unfortunately, as Sullivan himself admits during a presentation on his book, research wasn’t easy. The project was hampered by a “scattered” paper trail, a lack of witnesses and documents, and “collective amnesia” by Italians about wartime atrocities. 

Sullivan also disclosed that around 35 trips across the Alps were condensed into two significant expeditions for narrative purposes, some characters are composites of real people, and events were dramatized as a screenwriter might do. The end result is described as a balance of fact and fiction, story and history. 

Many readers have left tributes to the novel online, commending Lella’s bravery and resilience in the face of tremendous loss, saying his dedication to saving lives is inspirational. Written in a relaxed style, the excitable prose can at times tip into melodrama, though that probably won’t bother most readers, who’ll be engrossed by Lella’s daring feats. 

Some controversy has emerged regarding the veracity of these feats, however, as the novel was marketed as a true story. A blog by an Italian-Jewish man who hid at Casa Alpina in 1943-44 claims Lella wasn’t there

For most readers, Scarlet Sky will be a gripping foray into an often overlooked area of history. In times of great stress there will always be unsung heroes, Sullivan says, and for him, the main message of the novel is that “we are all capable of being more than ourselves”.


If you have read the book or plan to read it, we’d love to hear your thoughts. Join us on Friday 24th June at 2.30pm to share your thoughts and hear what opinions other members have about the book. Find out more and book your place here.

A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.

Want to continue reading?

This piece is part of our exclusive articles for members. We post new interviews, features and stories every single day, so sign up to continue reading - today and every day!

Sign up and start your free trial today

Already a member? Log in to read the full post