Beneath a Scarlet Sky

Mark Sullivan‘s Beneath a Scarlet Sky became a bestseller a few years ago, and its striking cover was impossible to miss. I don’t know why I didn’t pick it up before, but this spring, my mother-in-law started reading it and enthusiastically recommended it to me. She gifted it to me for my birthday, and I just finished it now while she’s visiting my husband and me. It’s a lovely book, and also great to talk about – perfect for book clubs and general conversation alike.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan
AudienceAdult
GenreHistorical Fiction
SettingItaly
Number of Pages509
Format I ReadPaperback
Original Publication DateMay 1, 2017

Official Summary

Based on the true story of a forgotten hero, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the triumphant, epic tale of one young man’s incredible courage and resilience during one of history’s darkest hours.

Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He’s a normal Italian teenager—obsessed with music, food, and girls—but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior.

In an attempt to protect him, Pino’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier—a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich’s most mysterious and powerful commanders.

Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share.

Review

I have to admit, I didn’t connect with Beneath a Scarlet Sky immediately. For whatever reason, the first 50 pages or so just weren’t capturing me. But I was determined to read the whole book, and decided that maybe it would work better for me as an audiobook. That was the best choice I could have made! The audiobook was fantastic, and as the story increased the stakes, I found myself completely engrossed by it.

As Mark Sullivan explains in the preface, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is very closely based on a true story. He spent a decade researching for it after first interviewing Pino Lella in the mid-2000s, and he kept to the truth as much as possible, even in crafting the story into a fictional format.

In the first part of the book, we get to meet Pino Lella, his younger brother Mimo, and his best friend Carletto. The teenaged boys are carefree and happy, not yet weighed down by WWII. It’s spring 1943, and Italy hasn’t seen the worst of it yet. Pino falls in instant love with a woman he’s met once, Anna. He’s charming and impulsive, stubborn and immature. But his parents send him away from his hometown – Milan – when the city starts getting bombed on a regular basis. Pino’s journey to Casa Alpina, in the Alps on Italy’s northern border, will prove to be a turning point in his life.

This is where Beneath a Scarlet Sky becomes fascinating and action-packed. While the younger boys – including Mimo – dedicate their time to learning and religious pursuits, Pino quickly assumes a vital, dangerous role: helping Jews escape through the Alps into the safety of Switzerland. The hikes are grueling, the weather fierce and unforgiving, and both Nazis and Italian fascists pose a threat every step of the way. But Pino is selfless, brave, and determined to help free these innocent people from certain devestation.

The whole section when Pino – and eventually Mimo – guide the Jews into Switzerland remains my favorite part of Beneath a Scarlet Sky. It’s emotional and inspiring, watching as Pino saves people who are immobilized by fear, including a woman who is pregnant. An avalanche creates for an especially thrilling chapter.

But after several months of this, Pino is about to turn 18, and is forced to enlist. This leads him to ultimately becoming the driver of General Hans Leyers, the second-most powerful man in Italy, and Pino takes on the dangerous role of being a spy for the resistance. Again, Beneath a Scarlet Sky becomes quite exciting, but less from action-packed scenes of mortal peril then from the psychological stress under which Pino works. Not only is he witness to the many atrocities a leader in the Nazi regime is committing, he’s also constantly at risk of getting caught.

His job isn’t all bad though: It also leads Pino back his long-lost love, Anna, who works as a maid for General Leyers’s mistress, Dolly. Pino and Anna’s romance is tentative and tender, but grows with passion and devotion, adding a sweeter layer to the novel. Their relationship is a breath of fresh air amidst all the horrors of war surrounding them.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a dense and thought-provoking book that offers a lot of different themes and emotions. It’s dramatic and thrilling, but also emotionally wrenching. If you’re like me, the novel may bring you to tears a few times. It will also make you laugh, surprise you, and push you into quiet contemplation.

I really enjoyed the novel and how much detail and feeling Mark Sullivan put into it. The negatives are minor in comparison to all the positives: Parts of it are a tad religious for my tastes, one event was far too sad for me, and early on the dialogue writing style felt a bit simplistic. But other than those small issues, Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a book that is moving and eye-opening. It’s incredible that the story is largely true.

Final Thoughts

Beneath a Scarlet Sky is a powerful and emotional novel with plenty of action, drama, romance, and political detail. It’s a book that can appeal to a wide range of readers, and even if you’re worn out on WWII stories, this one is worth picking up. I’m glad my mother-in-law encouraged me to read it, and I’ll make sure to read Mark Sullivan’s new book, The Last Green Valley, soon.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

About the Author

Mark Sullivan is the acclaimed author of eighteen novels, including the #1 New York Times bestselling Private series, which he writes with James Patterson. Mark has received numerous awards for his writing, including the WHSmith Fresh Talent Award, and his works have been named a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. He grew up in Medfield, Massachusetts, and graduated from Hamilton College with a BA in English before working as a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Niger, West Africa. Upon his return to the United States, he earned a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and began a career in investigative journalism. An avid skier and adventurer, he lives with his wife in Bozeman, Montana, where he remains grateful for the miracle of every moment.

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