If not for the war, Ada Gobetti would have been keeping house, like it or not. Mussolini’s Italy had no place for women outside the home. But because of the war, she and thousands like her became key players in the fight to liberate their country and forge a place for women in the postwar world.
Author Caroline Moorehead tells the gripping story of northern Italy’s freedom fighters in “A House in the Mountains,” the last in her four-volume nonfiction series about World War II Resistance. This time, she focuses on the partisans of Turin and the Piedmont region, with special attention to women. In the 20 months before liberation, the war was winding down, but it was no less perilous for the opponents of the occupying Germans and homegrown Fascists. People helping the Resistance risked the prospect of having their mangled bodies left in the streets as a warning to others. “Italy had become medieval in its horror.”
Yet the resisters pressed on, and women took full advantage of the enemies who did not take them seriously. The irrepressible Ada marched around the region, keeping the fractious anti-Fascist groups on the same page, “talking, explaining, persuading; her enthusiasm was infectious.” Frida worked undercover in factories, recruiting women to join the Resistance. Bianca was the organizer, Silvia the propagandist. Working with them were scores of women who passed out leaflets under the Nazis’ noses and bicycled up and down the mountains with messages for partisan fighters. Some even charmed German soldiers into carrying their packages loaded with hidden weapons.
But even as the partisans racked up successes, they struggled to win the support of the invading Allied forces. The U.S. and British were more interested in stopping communism than in rebuilding Italy. To them, Italians were not their current allies, but their former enemies. While their armies pursued broader objectives, more Piedmont partisans died.
“As Ada and her friends saw it, it was war, of every kind: between Allies and Axis, between Italians and Italians, between Italians and Germans; a civil war, a war of liberation and a class war. … Ada, Bianca, Frida, Silvia and their partisan friends would fight them all.”
As with Moorehead’s previous work, “A House in the Mountains” is exhaustively researched, which makes for some tough reading. The number of people, political parties and publications will challenge readers new to this phase of the war. But Moorehead artfully builds the tension as liberation approaches and partisans make a desperate last stand. She commiserates with her main characters when peace finally arrives and the new Italy looks “very like the old one.”
Yet for all their disappointments, women could finally vote and hold office, and their role in the Resistance gave them “a feeling of extraordinary well-being that never quite left them.”
Maureen McCarthy is a former Star Tribune team leader.
A House in the Mountains
By: Caroline Moorehead.
Publisher: Harper, 390 pages $29.99.