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As I sat there, looking at Father and listening to him, inside I began to rise, to swell.  I felt for a moment as if I were watching the scene from above, perched high like a bird on a branch.  I knew he was wrong about this, and his being wrong shrank him somehow to the size of a child or even a tiny animal.  But it was funny, because the wrongness, the smallness, made him suddenly — despite his unhappiness with me — easier to love.  Like he couldn’t hurt me in the same way anymore, like being his daughter was now, oddly, something I could accept with equanimity.

(from The Golden Hour, page 122)

Margaret Wurtele’s debut novel, The Golden Hour, is a coming-of-age story set in a small village in Tuscany during World War II.  Giovanna Bellini is 17 years old at the end of 1943, a time when her country has surrendered to the Allies and remains occupied by the Nazis.  The war seems so distant to her until her older brother, Giorgio, joins a band of partisans and the Nazis first take over part of the building where she helps the nuns teach school and then part of her family’s villa.

Giovanna wants to be taken seriously as a strong young woman, but she soon proves that she has a lot of growing up to do.  Her former fascist father seems confused about where to place his loyalties.  He’s angry at his son for deserting the Italian army, yet he secretly cheers the Allies on as they move closer and closer to victory.  However, whenever the Germans seem to gain some ground, he waffles, mainly because he doesn’t want to been seen as not supporting whichever side ultimately wins.  So it’s not surprising that Giovanna doesn’t truly understand that the Nazis are the enemy, and when Klaus, a German officer assigned to the school where she volunteers, shows an interest in her and her “exotic” beauty, she flirts right back, much to the chagrin of her family and the nuns.

Giovanna truly wants to prove herself, to make up for her mistakes, so when she has a chance to meet with Giorgio and help him and his fellow partisans, she doesn’t care about the risks.  When she is asked to hide a wounded partisan who is also a Jew, and her feelings for Mario grow, she finds out just how dangerous the Nazis can be and must overcome the obstacles of war and family to find herself and true happiness.

Wurtele’s writing is beautiful without being too flowery, and she makes readers feel like they really are in a small Tuscan village covered with vineyards and olive trees and filled with hearty food despite the meager rations.  Wurtele’s characters all felt real to me, from Mario’s mood swings while in hiding and Klaus’ seeking comfort with Giovanna, to the frustrated villagers who put their lives on the line for the partisans.  Even Giovanna’s innocence, whether in her interactions with men or her ignorance about what was happening to the Jews, was authentic for a teenage girl who had lived a mostly sheltered life in an affluent family.

The Golden Hour is a quiet novel about World War II.  There are moments of tension and excitement, but the violence and horror of the war are in the background.  Readers are not left ignorant of the death and destruction, nor are they assaulted with graphic descriptions of war.  Giovanna wades through her work with the partisans with light feet and a big heart, but you can sense the danger in the air, and being able to merely sense it is enough to drive the point home.  Wurtele contrasts moments of pure happiness with scenes of intense sadness as Giovanna evolves from an innocent girl to a young woman who has seen and risked more in a matter of months than many do their entire lives.  The Golden Hour may be a light novel set during wartime, but it is powerful in its depiction of ordinary people acting on the urge to do something useful and important for the war effort.

Book 6 for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Golden Hour from New American Library/Penguin for review. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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I’m thrilled to have Margaret Wurtele as a guest on Diary of an Eccentric today.  Margaret’s novel, The Golden Hour, is being released today.  The Golden Hour is set in Tuscany in 1943 and tells the story of 17-year-old Giovanna Bellini, whose life is upended when she grows close to a wounded partisan and Jew whom she is asked to hide.  Margaret is here today to talk about why she set her novel during World War II and what inspired her to tell this story.  Please give a warm welcome to Margaret Wurtele:

Even for the author, it can be a mystery how a book comes to be written. It took me more than three years to write The Golden Hour – to immerse myself in World War II and its history, to live with my characters and let their story emerge. It takes strong motivation to stick with a project that long, and I confess I sometimes wonder myself where I found the commitment to carry through! Why World War II and why, in particular, this story?

I was born in November 1945, a few weeks after the end of the war. My father had a bad case of phlebitis in his leg, so he was not allowed to fight. “Save your kisses – I’m 4F,” he telegrammed my mother, who was relieved that he would be safe and they could get an early start on married life. The war was part of their lives in other ways: saving stamps to purchase meat and butter; shortages of their favorite brand of cigarettes; gas rationing and, of course, anxiety for friends and neighbors. I heard these stories growing up, but the war loomed like a large cave from which I emerged. I think I’ve always wanted to connect with it in some deeper way.

In 2004 my husband and I traveled to Tuscany and rented a house with two other couples, friends from California’s wine country, where we live part time, grow grapes and make wine. One day we were invited to lunch at an estate near Lucca where one of the couples purchased olive trees for their Sonoma land. Our host spread a table out under a leafy shade tree near the stately old villa. After we finished eating, he began to reminisce about the last year of World War II.

He told us how the Nazis had taken over the great house next to us; how they had forced the family to live in a few small rooms at the back. After the armistice, he said, his mother – then only 17 – fell in love with the translator for the Allied troops who had liberated them – a much older Jewish man. Despite all the Nazis had put them through, her father still objected to the match on the grounds that he was Jewish. The irony of that – that someone who had been so persecuted would mirror the values of his tormentors onto his own daughter – stuck with me, and I left that day burning to write about it.

Why? My family comes from a Protestant background, and I grew up with strongly inculcated values of religious tolerance. I never had a Jewish boyfriend to put my father to the test, but I have no doubt he would have welcomed anyone I loved and wanted to marry. Must we all confront our fathers, even if it has to be through writing fiction?

I think as human beings, we all wrestle with the unspeakable injustices of World War II. As Americans, we were never occupied or forced to confront those deportations under our noses. So how would we have reacted under the same circumstances? I like to think that, had I been in my character Giovanna’s shoes, I would have been as defiant and courageous as she was. But I am far from sure. Maybe writing the story has been my way of grappling with the War’s legacy of evil.

Thanks, Margaret, for sharing the inspiration for your novel!

Courtesy of New American Library/Penguin, I am giving away a copy of The Golden Hour.  Because the publisher is shipping the book, the giveaway is open only to readers with U.S. addresses.  To enter, simply leave a comment with your e-mail address and tell me why you want to read the book.  This giveaway will end at 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, February 19, 2012.

**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**

Disclosure: I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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