Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This gripping, meticulously researched story (loosely based on the life of an actual survivor), set in Europe during WWII, is told from the point of view of a Venetian boy forced into war against his will. Roberto's quiet life as a gondolier's son ends abruptly the day he sneaks off to see a movie with his older brother and two friends, Memo and Samuele. German soldiers raid the theater and take the boys captive, and Roberto is immediately separated from his brother. Roberto and his two friends are carted by train across the border and quickly learn that although the Germans are allies, they consider the Italians dispensable (Nazi soldiers shoot three Italian boys on a train platform). Roberto is concerned for his own safety, but he is even more fearful for his Jewish friend Samuele (Roberto and Memo flank him when Samuele urinates, to hide his circumcision). When the train finally halts, Roberto and Samuele manage to stay together, while Memo is sent to a different camp. In the first half of the novel, Roberto describes the abominations he and Samuele both endure and witness as they are sent from one work camp to the next. At one, the boys build a large pen that the Germans later fill with Jews; horrified, Roberto puts himself at great risk to smuggle food daily through the barbed wire to a starving girl and her sister. The second half recounts Roberto's lone escape across Ukraine's barren landscape after Samuele dies fighting for a pair of German boots. Napoli's (Song of the Magdalene) graphic depiction of the boys' inhumane treatment counterpoints their quiet nurturing of each other's spirits. Roberto gives half his food rations to Samuele (because a boy who knows Samuele's secret is confiscating his food), and Samuele helps Roberto fall asleep by telling him comforting stories from the Old Testament. Napoli portrays a war in which resisters and deserters are the real heroes. In her choice of an innocent boy as first-person narrator, she gently leads readers through a gradual unfolding of events until they come face-to-face with the scope of the war's atrocities. Children will be riveted by Roberto's struggle to stay aliveand to aid others along the wayagainst enormous odds. And adults may never view WWII the same way again. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)
The ALAN Review - Chris Crowe
Roberto's happy life in Venice is disrupted when he and his Jewish friend, Samuele, are kidnapped along with many other Italian boys and put on a train bound for Germany. The boys become part of the slave labor camps run by the Nazis in Germany and later in Poland and the Ukraine, and the brutality and deprivation the boys endure are only slightly better than the Jewish death camps. The two boys depend on one another for survival, and they are at constant risk that their captors will discover Samuele's Jewish identity. When Samuele dies, Roberto escapes and must find his way-in early winter-from the Ukraine to the Black Sea. Napoli has written an absorbing tale of friendship and survival based on a little-known historical aspect of WWII. Readers will admire the loyalty and toughness of Samuele and Roberto and will be easily caught up in their efforts to survive the Nazi slave labor camps. This novel would work well paired with stories about the Holocaust or WWII or with survival stories.
Children's Literature - Judy Silverman
The stories of World War II aren't limited to Holocaust narratives. Italy, although an ally of Germany, often was not treated as a friendly country. Young Roberto, at the movies with his older brother and a Jewish friend, becomes part of a round up when German soldiers take (there's no other way to say this) the audience. The young men are transported by train to Eastern Europe, where they become slave laborers. This is not an adventure story, and it's not for the faint of heart, but it's well-written and heartwarming, as well as heartbreaking. Highly recommended.
VOYA - Janet Mura
This book is based on the real experiences of a Venetian youth. The United States is at war with the Axis powers and American films are rare in Italy, but when one comes to Venice, Roberto, his older brother Sergio, and Roberto's friends Memo and Samuele really want to see it. Roberto and Sergio creep from their home (so Mother will not give them work) and meet up with Memo and Samuele. Sergio rips the Star of David off of Samuele's sleeve, and they go to the theater. The room darkens, the lights flash on, and German soldiers march down the aisles. The younger boys are herded together to the train station and into trains, separating them from Sergio. This harrowing tale of inhumanity, strength, and friendship begins in terror. Memo and Roberto protect Samuele, and Samuele gives them strength to withstand the horrors they see. Roberto and Samuele face hardships, death, backbreaking work, starvation, freezing, and fighting with others for survival. Samuele loses this last battle, and when he does Roberto is changed forever. He refuses to let go of hope and escapes; but getting back to Italy from Germany is not easy, and his struggles to survive test his will to live and his ingenuity. This is not an easy novel. It stays with you, haunts you, and makes you wish that people were not really like this, when in reality you know that war is hell and people can be savage. The book is beautifully written, and it is a good choice for novels about World War II, survival, or overcoming odds. VOYA Codes: 5Q 4P M J (Hard to imagine it being any better written, Broad general YA appeal, Middle School-defined as grades 6 to 8 and Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9).
School Library Journal
Gr 4-9--Napoli, who has written in a variety of genres--fantasy, mystery, realistic fiction, legends--demonstrates that she has mastered historical fiction as well. Sneaking into the cinema to see an American Western during World War II has grave consequences for Roberto, a Venetian middle-school student, his brother, and two friends. The young male audience is trapped by German soldiers and transported by train out of Italy as cheap forced labor. The first project, constructing a tarmac, goes smoothly, despite wretched living conditions. Separated from his older brother, timid Roberto relies on his quick-thinking friend, Samuele. Both realize the necessity of hiding Samuele's Jewish identity from their captors and fellow prisoners. When a "shipment" of Polish Jews arrive and are penned near the labor group, Roberto uses his ingenuity to help feed two Jewish girls with his meager rations. After Samuele is beaten to death trying to save Roberto's scavenged boots, Roberto escapes. He is a displaced gondolier trying to navigate his boat on a modern Styx, a hellish river journey with slim chances for survival. Few books view the Holocaust from this vantage point; few readers are familiar with the Venetian/Italian connection to the work camps. Others will be interested in this story as survivalism from the worst kind of nightmare. Many children will be ensnared by the author's paean to the art and value of storytelling. Samuele's legacy is the nourishing stories that keep Roberto alive. An intense, gripping tale.--Marilyn Payne Phillips, University City Public Library, MO
From Napoli (Trouble on the Tracks, p. 144, etc.), a powerful novel set in a vividly realized wartime milieu.
Roberto, a Venetian boy who is about to graduate from middle school, is so eager to attend a rare American movie that he makes a worrisome bargain with a boy who is always in trouble. On top of this small sin, he attends the movie with a Jewish boy, Samuele, an unwise idea when restrictions and dangers are multiplying. German soldiers enter the theater and capture all the boys; at first, Roberto can't make sense of what is happening to him. Transported to desolate regions, the boys are forced into labor building a tarmac; food is scarce, the climate is life-threatening, and survival seems remote. Now called Enzo, Samuele, who has a deeper understanding of the situation and who constantly watches for a chance to defy his captors, tells Roberto stories that become crucial to his sanity and lend a semblance of humanity to their desperate situation. When Roberto escapes, the book becomes a memorable survival story: He learns not to speak and give away his nationality, puzzles out the changing borders and alliances of the war, eats slugs in snow-covered streams to survive, and battles wild animals. Finally, by participating in the partigiano, who sabotage the war and work to hide endangered Jews, Roberto goes from victim to hero, seizing control of his life for a noble cause. Riveting.