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Jan252019

Book Review: Pro Patria: The Story of an American Who Fought for Italy in World War I

Pro Patria: The Story of an American Who Fought for Italy in World War I Marcella Bernard. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, October 11, 2018, Trade Paperback and E-book, 768 pages.

Reviewed by T. L. Needham.

When I was asked to read and review Pro Patria and learned it was about World War I, I realized how little I knew about this war. What I did know was based mainly on reading Ernest Hemingway’s book, A Farewell to Arms. However, I read that book fifty years ago. So, this was new material for me to explore. 

I was struck by the irony that this book was released during the 100th anniversary of World War I, which lasted from 1914 to 1918. Thus, I was eager to “time-travel” back 100 years to delve into this important global conflict that would shape what followed in the 20th Century.

My first impression when the book arrived: BIG! The book is a hefty 751 pages, is based on the wartime journals kept by Bernardino Bernardini, and includes his 250-page memoir of his military service in the Italian army from 1915 to 1919. He wrote My Military Life two years after returning to his home in Chicago from his service as an Italian Army infantryman.

The author, Marcella Bernard, is the niece of Bernardino Bernardini. She included family history, historic facts, and events, combined with her imaginative enhancement of the story. She describes her Uncle Bernardino as a man whose national identity vacillates between his American citizenship and Italian heritage.

As I began to read this book, I soon realized it is not a “page-turner.” Rather, the author slowly develops the family history, background, and nature of each family member and reveals the growing conflict within the young protagonist over his sense of self and blended loyalties. When he decides to travel to Italy and join the Italian Infantry, and relinquish his American citizenship, the story begins a daily account of his activities. There is a military adage common to all armies that the daily imperative is to: “Hurry up and wait . . .”

Thus, this story proceeds, day-by-day; we follow the movement of his unit marching from one town to another. Day by day, week-by-week, little or nothing happens except constant marching, rumors, and reversal of orders. Yet, as always in war, the infantry will end up in the trenches, at the frontline, or in the fifth-line at the rear. Wherever positioned, the soldier is subject to sudden death or injury from poison gas attack, artillery barrage, machine gun fire, snipers, bayonet wielding enemy infantry charges, and so much more. Plus, even in the rear, deserters are commonplace and exposed to death by firing squad. Bernardino is captured and endures risk of death from starvation, illness, and infection of his injuries. Even death by suicide stalks these miserable men.

If one can find a more positive side to this war story, it is found in the travels across northern Italy, as Bernardino’s unit marches from one town to the next. The historic features and architecture of each town captivate him. A fascinating travel-log emerges to keep the reader engaged and offsets the horrific war scenes.

As the reader travels along with Bernardino, another engaging feature emerges in this story: the fellowship and close friendships he makes with fellow soldiers. His relatives in many towns emerge too. In this way, the reader comes to know and appreciate the various Italian provinces and their unique history, art, and culture. The reader also learns the customs, traits, and nature of the people in the provinces.

Since this book is peppered with statements in Italian, it would have been helpful to a reader like myself, who does not speak or read Italian, to have a translation. Without a translation, the statements work like a “speed-bump” to slow, or stop, the reader as one tries to discern from context or inference what the Italian words mean.

I find this book to be a historic and extraordinary achievement. It will be of great interest to historians, especially in the study of early 20th Century war and culture. It is also an important study of Italian and American cultures and the merger of the two for immigrants in that era. While not exactly a “page-turner,” it is still an epic story of great historic and cultural importance.

As a native of Kansas City, which is home of the National World War I Memorial and Museum, I plan to take my copy of this book to the director of the museum on my next visit. This book should be an important addition to their archives and be offered in their bookstore.

 

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