Navy Street Press

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By Kate Bristow

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Through deeply personal stories, Kate Bristow's SAVING MADONNA offers a window into the potential for both depravity and nobility of people at war—and underscores the critical importance of protecting art, the manifestation of our humanity.
This novel, based on a true story, is about the effort by members of a small Italian farming community in 1943 to save art masterpieces from the ravages of World War II and the village’s German occupiers. A courageous woman bent on a career as a curator joins the dangerous enterprise.

Author Kate Bristow put pen to paper after learning of an effort by members of a small Italian farming community to save works of art from the ravages of World War II in general and the Nazis in particular. The plan was carried out under the noses of—and, indeed, with unsuspecting help from—the German soldiers themselves. This historical footnote took place in 1943, shortly after Mussolini had fallen and Italy had switched allegiance to the Allies. Its players were not military or political leaders but farmers, beaten down by the war, hungry and desolate under German occupation. This aspect of the audacious plan is what compelled Bristow to write a novel that at various moments moves deeply, shocks, and—unfortunately—sags under pedantic or mundane exposition. Ultimately, however, through intimate and deeply personal stories, SAVING MADONNA offers a worthy window into the human potential for both depravity and nobility of people at war.

The book’s weaknesses stem mostly from over-reliance on details around the factual event, which often get in the way of what could have been a sharper, more compelling story. Characters frequently tell each other what they plan to do and how they plan to do it, or relay (rather than engage in) conflicts that they hear about from others, removing the reader from the action by one, two, or even three degrees. But when Bristow engages her characters in specific actions, the results are in turn compelling, funny, romantic, and staggeringly tragic. Particularly memorable are scenes of individuals—including children—suffering at the hands of Nazi commanders, as well as a deliciously sly dinner in which women turn the storied excellence of Italian wine, cuisine, and conversation into weapons that delay and obfuscate the plans of their enemies. Scenes of intimacy are also strong, from the assignations and pillow talk of a blossoming love affair to shared words of grief among survivors.

The author beautifully presents thematic messages through the dialogue among characters in conflict—farmers against going to battle while their crops need tending for the village to survive; a brother trying to stop his sibling from joining the resistance effort; a young man fretting over his lover’s wish to take a dangerous journey; etc. One character speaks of how unexpected this all was just the year before: “I’m a shoemaker, for God’s sake. Florence, Rome, Milan, Naples—that’s where the war was. Well, it’s here now.” Another character sums up what the people of the community ultimately learn: “We are all fighting, in our own ways, for the Italy we want to be part of once more.”

The key theme of the story—that the universal language of art is a manifestation of our humanity and must be preserved for all generations—is likewise noted in words of conflict throughout the book. A father despairs over his daughter’s insistence on not only a career as a curator but on the pursuit of a dangerous plot over something as “frivolous” as art. But the daughter, the novel’s protagonist, knows that the opposite is true. “This is who we are,” she says at one point. “If those beautiful paintings and sculptures and tapestries—all that representation of life—are gone, we’ll have lost part of our humanity. To me, it is as important as food. It matters.”

In her afterword, Bristow writes that the destruction of art still happens today “in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.” Thus SAVING MADONNA takes on not just a historical but a modern context, too. By extension, its message is tied to civilization itself: “The easiest way to erase a people and a sense of self is for the enemy to destroy what makes those people special.”

Through deeply personal stories, Kate Bristow’s SAVING MADONNA offers a window into the potential for both depravity and nobility of people at war—and underscores the critical importance of protecting art, the manifestation of our humanity.

~Anne Welsbacher for IndieReader

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