When young Angelo’s mother dies, his father sends him to live with his grandparents in Italy who are employed by a wealthy Jewish businessman. Still grieving, Angelo is befriended by the precocious daughter of the house, Eva Roselli. Eva and Angelo grow up together much like a brother and sister, but they both know the feelings between them run deeper. However, Angelo is determined to be a priest and Eva is set on a path to be an accomplished violinist, so despite occasionally betraying their feelings for one another, they each pursue their chosen vocations.
Everything changes when WWII breaks out and Italy allies itself with Germany. Angelo’s duty to God and the priesthood are challenged by his mission to keep not only his beloved Eva safe, but also their shared loved ones. Things only become more complicated when they both get involved in the Italian underground working to save and rescue Italy’s Jewish population.
I recently read and reviewed my first book by Amy Harmon and was blown away. I didn’t expect that she could write another story I would love even better, but she has done so with From Sand and Ash. Honestly, no words I could give you would do justice to the beauty and poignancy of Eva and Angelo’s story. I have read other WWII stories, but none quite like this one. The setting in Italy and the perspective of the war from the Italian perspective is unique. Particularly since many Italians were not in favor of the war and were dragged into it by bad leadership. Also, the fact that Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943 which then made their former ally Germany, their new enemy, gives an interesting twist to the story. Even though they expected to be liberated, they experienced the opposite as the Germans moved in, occupied the country and then began oppressing and torturing the Italian people. War stories can become a little too dark for me sometimes, but Harmon does a great job of balancing the horror with hope.
I also loved the uniqueness of Eva and Angelo’s inter-faith relationship. Harmon took an unlikely handicapped man, ordained to be a priest and turned him into a romantic hero. Not only that, but the usual dynamic is turned upside down, because Eva and her family are wealthy Jews with Angelo’s Catholic family acting as both employees and surrogate family. I liked how Eva acted as the aggressor many times, fighting for their love to have a chance, with Angelo taking the path of strong resistance and self-sacrifice.
This is such a beautiful story not only of romantic love and denial between a couple of different faiths, but also of the depths and strength of the human spirit in times of extreme fear, chaos and horror. Sometimes, the agony of the world can seem overwhelming and it is hard to know what to do, when every action seems so small. But From Sand and Ash demonstrates that although we cannot save the whole world, we do what we can to offer hope, to save one at a time. Every life matters and the sacrifices that Eva and Angelo make for their loved ones and strangers shows the depths of their courage and the true cost of love.
Though very religious types might find things to quibble with in this book, I thought the author did an excellent job of weaving in the history and meaning of both the Jewish and Catholic faiths without becoming preachy. I learned new things about both faiths that I had never known before. It is particularly interesting, that according to the author’s notes, the survival rate of Italian Jews was 80 percent, thanks to the work and sacrifice of Italian citizens and the Catholic church who hid and protected them. Contrast that with the 80 percent mortality rate of other European Jews.
I feel so inadequate in reviewing this story that so seriously impacted me. Even the title has unsuspected depths and meanings which I am still meditating over.
My big takeaway from this story is the power and diversity of love. The love of family for which we willingly sacrifice, the love of life and righteousness that forces us to act on behalf of others even at great risk to self and the purity of love which motivates self-sacrifice and denial and also overcomes enormous differences and great evil. I believe this is a story that I will have to read multiple times to experience and to learn its’ total depth and impact. And I won’t mind that one bit.