War in Val d’Orcia

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According to Uncle Frankie, fighting with the American 8th Army, surviving malaria in North Africa, working their way up Italy’s boot, slipping Neapolitan whores into American officers’ beds, and falling in love with a New York lawyer attached to Eisenhower’s central staff kept him so busy and entertained, he never felt hunger, fear or exhaustion. Let his flat-footed, weak-eyed brothers stay home and drive cab or do war work. With his perfect Neapolitan dialect, my rascally youngest uncle played World War II for all it was worth.

     Iris and Antonio Origin, deep in the hills of southern Tuscany, weren’t particularly discomfited by the war either, not in the beginning. On their network of 50 farms, they worked with Tuscan farmers to refashion agricultural practices that had eroded the soil. Iris went to Rome for the birth of her second child. The city was tense, she found, as the U.S. 8th Army advanced from Sicily, and German troops retreated behind them. But the Origos were absorbed in their experiment to return 150, 000 acres of marginal Tuscan land to productivity. In their huge 15th-century manor house, La Foce, they had no trouble housing twenty refugee children from the north, bombed out of their homes. Iris started a school. She began writing a diary at night when the children slept.

    It is this diary that now has become one of the most respected accounts of life in the chaos that was Italy’s disintegration. Mussolini had fallen. For a while it looked like Prime Minister Badoglio would declare Italian neutrality, but as he hesitated, Fascists took control of many towns, grimly determined to resist the Allies. With an insouciance hard to imagine, Iris and Antonio conversed with German officers, begged Fascists for leniency, urged infuriated Partisans to caution and stealth, and kept faith with their peasant co-conspirators. All buried hams and cheese. Iris buried books and beautiful objects, cloth and thread. What could not be purchased, was made over from what remained. Each affectionate connection with a combatant throbbed with shared danger and the fear of loss, yet Antonio drove through mined fields to various provincial towns to beg or consult, to advise or test the water.

     The nearer the Americans came, the more dire became their situation. German troops had flooded down from the north. Sporadic fighting among Partisans, Fascists and Germans proved constantly unpredictable. Many whom the Origos encountered they could not trust. But to show this openly was as dangerous as their uncertainty. Through most of it, these two stanch patriots of what was best in Italy struggled to maintain their composure, the health and livelihood of the farms that depended on them, and the lives of their own smaller but always growing group.

     Thinking back on this absorbing account, I am reminded of another war diary, Mary Boykin Chestnut’s Diary from Dixie, her description of South Carolina during the Civil Wary. In General Sherman’s march to the sea, the Battle of Charleston, the fate of plantations throughout the South Carolina low country, and the chaos of unpredictable allegiances and troop movements–Mary Chestnut kept her head held high and her pluck in hand. It’s impossible to compare suffering, but the immediacy of both these diaries and the writers’ intelligence, stamina, and determination to survive make them unforgettable.

     Only at the end, when the Origos and their many charges had to walk away from La Foce, with only the clothes and minimal food they could carry, only after sleeping with children on the ground, soothing their fears of constant aircraft strafing, and with almost no water to be had, only then did Iris begin to suffer acutely. Finding refuge in a tiny town, being stuffed in cellars for days as the battle raged above them–this meant that when the British and Americans finally arrived, she and all her clan greeted them with passionate relief. Yet she noted that the soldiers were a bit bored by it all, having lived through similar “liberations.”

     At the end her offering to the peasants stands as testimony to what was best in conflicted country: “Resigned and laborious, they and their men folk turn back from the fresh graves and the wreckage of their homes to their accustomed daily toil. It is they who will bring the land to life again.” (1947,  1984, p. 239)

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