Literature and textbooks and movies are replete with stories of the victors, the defeated, and the victims of WWII. Most often they are morality plays that portray the Nazi’s as devils and the allies as angels. It’s gotten so I automatically turn off my entertainment response meter when I see a swastika on screen or see the word “Panzer” or “Sherman Tank” on the page. I know what I’m going to get. Except for an occasional twist like Inglorious Basterds,” the story arcs are virtually identical. And even then . . .
How Fires End is a welcome anomaly. It avoids two cliche pitfalls. First, we don’t get black hat nazis v. white hat western allies. Then, although the community in question originates in Sicily, it blessedly proceeds with no Godfathers or Mafiosi. What blessings.
Instead, Marco Rafala gives us a complex interfamily drama so filled with pain and contradiction and love that it’s often hard to imagine. In the macro picture, we are in the midst of the allied invasion of Italy during the waning days of WWII. Those allies, the good guys, blanket the place with explosives indiscriminately, spreading “collateral damage” hither and yon. Some of the people they bomb joined with the axis powers commanded by Mussolini. Bad guys? Well, when the tanks roll in and tell you to join up or you and your family die, what are you to do? Others, never in uniform, were peasants trying to get from one end of each day to the other without losing legs, arms, lives, family. The most poignant story, one which haunts both a major character and the reader throughout the story, is of two young boys, too young to know better, finding an unexploded shell in an orchard. You can guess what comes next.
All of these folks, as I said, come from the same region of Sicily and bring their prejudices and grudges (and boy, can they hold grudges) with them, which means on the micro level, there are ugly incidents here in the USA town that have little or nothing to do with war at large. By more than coincidence, the immigrants settle in the small community of Middletown, Connecticut. Middletown is perhaps best known as the home of Wesleyan University, an ivy league-like institution that one would think of as scholarly and sedate. Turns out it is an island among these blue collar Europeans who bring their tribal loyalties and feuds with them while they work in the fisheries and factories that surround the unaware scholars. Thus do the conflicts in town mirror those in the nation and world.
Not only is Rafala’s perspective refreshing, not only does it bring new insight into a history of which few of us are aware, but it is a tale skillfully and touchingly told. Plenty of pain. Plenty of love. A sea of malevolence and goodness and unintended consequences. You don’t get something like this often. Go out and read it. You’ll be the better for it.