When Nazi soldiers take over their villa, 17-year-old Giovanna Bellini and her parents must relocate to five small rooms in the back of the house. It’s 1944, and after Italy makes peace with the Allies, Tuscany is overrun by German occupiers. This smoothly written debut presents Giovanna’s coming-of-age as she breaks away from her family’s protectiveness and finds a noble calling in aiding Italy’s partisan fighters, including her brother, Giorgio.
Wurtele captures the innocence and impetuousness of youth as Giovanna explores her attraction to a handsome Nazi lieutenant and later falls in love with Mario, a Jewish man who was badly wounded in the resistance movement. While she risks her life to keep Mario safe, her stubborn father veers between his original Fascist loyalties and his hopes for an Allied victory.
The novel is narrated by an older, wiser Giovanna, and her periodic commentary on the dangerous situations unnoticed by her younger self contributes to the suspense. Wurtele carefully looks beyond religious and cultural stereotypes, and her heroine’s character growth is moving and realistic. (Review first published in the January 1st issue of Booklist)
The Golden Hour will officially be published by NAL tomorrow ($15.00, trade pb, 320pp).
From Margaret Wurtele:
When I think of the phrase “reading the past,” it occurs to me how important diaries, journals and memoirs are to us, as readers and as writers. My novel The Golden Hour was originally sparked on a visit to Italy about six years ago. At lunch on the grounds of a Tuscan villa near Lucca, our host recounted a fragment of his family history that lodged in my head and would not let go. My character, the young Giovanna, was born that afternoon, when I was introduced to our host’s mother, then in her 80s. As I wrote, in the years following that brief encounter, the story evolved and changed, becoming my story, not theirs.
When I began to research World War II in Italy, I found all sorts of narratives of the war, military chronicles, and descriptions of life in Italy in the early forties – all fact-filled and a bit dry. But what truly drew me in and excited my imagination were first-person narratives – journals, diaries and memoirs rooted both in the time and place of my story.
I discovered, for example, Iris Origo’s absorbing War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary. This erudite Anglo-America woman, living on the opposite side of the Italian peninsula from Lucca, wrote vividly about operating a shelter on the grounds of her estate for refugee children, protecting them from the ravages of war. Her courage and generous spirit moved me, and she became the inspiration for my own character, Marchesa Lily Falconieri.
Another first-person account provided me with precious details of both time and place. Tullio Bruno Bertini’s Trapped in Tuscany is a memoir written by an American, the son of Italian immigrants. At nine years old, attempting to repatriate to their home country, his family found themselves trapped in northern Italy under German occupation. They spent the years of the war in Diecimo, a small village in the Serchio River valley, a few kilometers from where my novel is set. From him I got a feel for the hardships of the occupation, for the sequence of the Allies’ liberation of the area, for the details of day-to-day village life in those difficult times.
In Italy I found a copy of A Farm in Chianti by Maria Bianca Viviani della Robbia. It is an enthralling memoir, written a decade or so after World War II, that offered a rich and colorful description of the rural Tuscan landscape. Though much of the sense of place in The Golden Hour was informed by my own life in the vineyards and olive groves of California’s Napa Valley, this Chianti-based journal grounded me in the particulars of Tuscan agricultural life.
The Golden Hour is my first novel, but both of my earlier published memoirs drew almost exclusively on my own journals for their raw material. Taking Root is both a gardening journal and a year of spiritual reflection that chronicles an awakening in my early forties. Touching the Edge, a reflection on my son’s death on Mount Rainier, was written a couple of years after his accident, but it drew upon the raw immediacy of three volumes of diaries in which I originally recorded my horrific loss.
I, like so many people, have always kept journals, ever since I was in high school – some years more actively than others. Will all of our private notations and confidences, this accumulation of worn paper and stained leather, I wonder, be relegated to the trash heap? Or might a page or two some day be unearthed and become a source of inspiration for a 22nd century historical novel?
Margaret Wurtele is the author of two memoirs. She and her husband split their time between Minnesota and Napa Valley, where they are owners of Terra Valentine Winery. Visit her online at www.margaretwurtele.com.