Susan Violante’s Innocent War is a surprising look at World War II from the perspective of a young Italian boy growing up in Libya and Sicily, a boy who happens to be the author’s father. Violante has written this novel based on recordings made by her father about his life, recordings that surprised her and made her see her father in a new way. Indeed, Violante found her father’s story so interesting that she decided to share it with others, as she states in the Foreword:
“I wrote a book to get to know my father, and in the process I got to know myself. This didn’t come without hardship, loneliness, disappointment, and frustration as I set myself to break the circle of silence between parents and their sons and daughters.”
Furthermore, Violante has dedicated the book to “my parents and to those who, during their childhood, were cheated, lied to, and cowardly abused by those who promote false ideals; and that,” the author continues, “once they had discovered the truth were able to react and learn to build a new life.”
The false ideals and lies she refers to become apparent in this tale of Nino, a 10- to 15-year old boy from 1940-1945, who goes from looking forward to the day he can wear an Italian soldier’s uniform, to the realization that everything he has been taught in his textbooks at school about Americans has been lies. As the war progresses, he will come to meet American soldiers and grasp how the war has destroyed lives.
I found Innocent War to be refreshing because–while I’ve read lots of books about World War II that focus on the war in Britain, Germany, France, and even Italy–this book takes place largely in Libya, and then later in Sicily. Nino lives through the bombing of Tripoli and then moves with his mother and little sister to Zaitan (Zaitan, Libya), where his dad is helping to dig a trench to stop invasions by the Allied forces. Later, the Italians in Tripoli are evacuated to Sicily where they experience more bombings and eventually the American invasion.
While World War II is central to the novel, Innocent War is also a coming-of-age story of a boy undergoing puberty and learning how to be a man, feeling his first desires for women, wanting to defend his mother and sister, and experiencing loss through his Jewish neighbors being taken away and his friends being killed in bombings. A journey through the desert on a camel, a sandstorm, constant air attacks and fears of invasion, and finally Nino’s learning to build his own detonators all provide plenty of variety and excitement throughout the book.
I regretted only that the book ended without telling more of Nino’s story—but a sequel is coming. Even the occasional typos did not distract me from reading the entire book in one morning and being left wanting more.
As a writer of historical fiction myself who often draws on family history, I found Innocent War to be a compelling start to what is a planned Behind an Immigrant’s Past series of books about Violante’s father. Since Violante was born in Venezuela, I can only assume that future books will tell how her father left Sicily and made his way to South America and eventually to the United States. Centuries after the first immigrants came to these shores, the immigrant experience remains a fascinating and integral part of America’s past, and present as it shapes who we are as Americans, and Violante’s book adds to our understanding of that experience. I look forward to her future volumes.
For more information about Susan Violante and Innocent War, visit www.SusanViolante.com.