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Good Literature for Children & Adults

Sandra Sabatini - 14 April - Dante's War

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Parry Sound Books 22nd Annual Reading Series begins on Wednesday 14 April at 7:30 pm, with author Sandra Sabatini.

I read Dante’s War by Sandra Sabatini just over a year ago. I immediately contacted the author and invited her to come to Parry Sound and present a reading from her novel.

Dante’s War is one of the best books I have read in the past year. Once you open the cover of this book your life will have to be put on hold until you finish.

Dante is Dante De Angelis, born in Spoleto, an ancient town in the Umbrian hills south east of Siena. He is the only child of a loving mother and a brutal father. His only friend is Sabino, youngest in a family of girls, whose love of life and confidence gives comfort to Dante. Together the boys explore the hills and attend school – where they are first introduced to Fascism. “the Fascists came … with cookies and framed portraits of Mussolini…certificates with swirling Latin letters. …pencils and flags.”

Angelina is then introduced, and the story moves effortlessly from Dante’s childhood to that of Angelina, as Fascism spreads throughout Italy. In this remote village life for the women revolves around the washing well, an almost biblical setting. The well is where the women bring their clothing and sheets to be washed – where Angelina learns about marriage – and sex – as the women “erase the traces of love” from the sheets.

Angelina leaves her home to work for her aunt in Rome just as Dante discovers that the coming war provides him with an escape from his father. Dante and Sabino join the army – a life almost as brutal as home for Dante. Both Dante and Sabino are now aircraft mechanics – jobs they believe will keep them out of the fighting and safely away from the danger of being killed in this war.

Dante and Angelina promise to write to each other during their separation and in their letters love begins to grow.

Dante and Sabino, after some safe postings in Italy, are sent to North Africa with Rommel’s campaign. Here they are visited by the charismatic Mussolini. In Dante’s village at home “Everyone loved the Duce… there were pensions, there were jobs” the citizens looked forward “to thriving retirement. All because of Mussolini. It had to be good.”

“And then came the inspired notion of a second Roman empire. And Hitler.” And the world changed for all of Italy.

Life in Angelina’s village becomes more difficult. There is less food and the people, who have come to oppose Fascism, must be very careful. There are ruthless reprisals for any action against the occupying forces. And for Dante and Sabino the war is no longer safe. Dante listens to Rommel in the desert, as he urges the men to fight “as though the words themselves were weapons that would lead them to victory.” In the dugout the men pray, “no one prays more urgently for peace than a soldier”.

Dante and Sabino know it is not possible to win this desert war as they retreat, hoping to survive the final days of the war. To Dante “it seemed an immensely long time since he had seen Angelina...He loaded and fired, and wondered whose son he was killing.”

I have just returned from a long holiday in Tuscany and Umbria, and I often thought of this novel as I explored the tiny hill towns in the southern part of the region – many very much the same as they would have been during the Second World War.

My Great Aunt was a nurse, an officer with the American Army, in North Africa, Sicily and Italy – following very much the same route as the fictional Dante. My oldest uncle was killed during the Second World War in this part of Italy and is buried there. I was surprised to see very little evidence of the Second World War in Italy today. It seems to have been erased from their history – except for the huge cemeteries of the dead - American, Canadian and other Allied forces, row upon row of white markers. Sandra Sabatini has brought this time to life.

Don’t miss the opportunity to meet Sandra Sabatini, to hear her read from Dante’s War – and to discover the story behind this extraordinary novel.

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