Why I read it: Another tale of World War II, this from my family's ancestral home of Italy.
Summary: An Italian cyclist, Gino Bartali, finds himself at the peak of his career as Fascism, then World War II overrun his country. He uses his cycling ability to help save the Jews of Italy from the hands of the Nazis.
My Thoughts: I've said it before and I'll say it ad nauseum. We'll never understand the full story of World War II. There were too many people involved, too many minor tales to ever be collected, too many, in fact, that have already left us forever.
Bartali's heroics comprise just one of those tales. His rise to cycling fame coincided with the rise of Mussolini to power, and it affected his career, as the government chose who would race where and when, in an effort to control nationalistic image. Mussolini was only photographed from low angles, to make him look taller, for instance, lest the world think of Italians as small and weak (which they were through World War I - read more in the book). If the government felt Bartali stood no chance in the Tour de France, he could not go. Totalitarianism still holds such cards today in certain parts of the world.
When the war struck, Bartali did his military duty, then went beyond, clandestinely aiding the Jews of his home country by smuggling materials for fake identification papers to printers willing to do the work under the risk of death. Bartali, of course, faced the same. He never even told his wife what he was doing at the time. It was calculated, of course, but he obviously reached a point in his life, in the war, when he realized that life was about more than just him, that there were greater causes than self-preservation.
The amazing irony of the book comes after the war, when political turmoil strikes Italy, and riots are about to break out. All the while, Bartali is in the Alps, racing the Tour de France once again, ten years after his pre-war victory. News of his placing could swing the future of Italy in one direction or another.
Bartali had the temperament of many a superior athlete, and that probably gets underplayed in this book. But when the chips were down, he threw in and showed supreme selflessness. One wonders how today's athletes would react.
No, I'd rather not even think about it.