An Italian-American major, part of American occupation forces in Sicily during World War II, tries to reform the town in his charge by being decent to people. His efforts are epitomized by his efforts to replace the 700-year-old bell melted down for bullets by the fascists.
Set in Occupied Italy the story of an American Army major trying to do the right thing and also show an Italian town that democracy is more than just words. Some individual chapters, about the town crier and the POWs return, outshine the book as a whole but then 1945 was a long time ago. Always humane.
The printing history on the copy I have is amazing. A print run a month from January 1944 through March 1945.
In a Bell for Adano, Hersey tells the story of the occupation and administration by Allied forces in 1943 of a recently-liberated Sicilian village. The administrator, Major Victor Joppolo, himself Italian-American, is an idealistic young man who earnestly wishes to help the village for all the "right" reasons-- to see justice done but with compassion, to help the villagers practice and see the benefits of democracy, American style--and a very American desire to be liked. He is, as the Prologue asks us to believe,
"a good man".
The village is shattered under the twin effects of over a decade of Fascist rule and the war. Joppolo's desire is to see the town get back on its feet as fast as it can.
So, instead of fast-paced action, we have a series of interwoven vignettes of just how that occurs. Early on, Joppolo discovers that the people of the town are both greiving and outraged over the loss of their 700 year old town bell. During the time just before thre allied invasion, the Fascists had removed the bell to have it melted down to make cannon. The bell was a part of the psyche of the village. It was the one that rang out the hours, it
"told us when to do things, such as eating. It told us when to have the morning egg and when to have pasta and rabbit and when to have wine in the evening."
"the tone that mattered. It soothed all the people of this town. It chided those who were angry, it cheered the unhappy ones, it even laughed with those who were drunk. It was a tone for everybody".
Moved, Joppolo dedicates himself to finding another, suitable bell.
But meantime the bakeries have to reopen, the fishermen must be able to fish again--and food and water must be brought into the village by mule cart.
And there hangs the crisis of the tale. The late 20th century-early 21st century American idolatry of the military does not take into account the common soldier's experience--that most general officers are narrow-minded, rigid egotists who have no business in any sort of position of authority. We meet one such, General Marvin, who bewilders the village by ordering the killing of the mule of a poor carter and forbidding the entry into the village of any carts--all because one cart was in his way as he made his self-important way down the road. Joppolo, in an act of common sense, rescinds the order--and lays the foundation for his own undoing.
And so the story unfolds--of good acts by the major, of whom the village becomes quite fond, of the hard-headed common sense displayed by the cynical Sgt. Borth, of well-intentioned but disastrous acts on the part of 3 drunken M.P.s. Joppolo uses ingenuity and a sound knowledge of the psychology of his countrymen to get things done--while falling in love with one of the beautiful Sicilian young women in the town, who has lost her fiancé in an insane act during the recent invasion.
In the end, Joppolo's common sense is his undoing, and he is removed form the village by order of General Marvin. But not before he sees the replacement bell--a bell for Adano--hung in the bell tower and hears its clear tone ringing out as he makes his way out of the village.
Hersey's simple, direct style conveys beautifully the view that Americans had of themselves at this time--direct, uncomplicated people with common sense values who knew how to get things done. An idealistic people who really believed in democracy and that The American Way as embodied in American values would work for everyone. Yes, there are stupid people such as General Marvin, and the acts of American soldiers were sometimes embarassing but still, overall, the G.I.s behaved well and sincerely.
That was the rock-solid belief. The truth, as in all wars, no doubt was different, but that's what Americans believed.
It's a gentle book about good but far from perfect people struggling to survive in the aftermath of war--both the conquered and the conquerors. People die but accidentally. The truth was no doubt different, but Hersey's book captured the beliefs and ideals of the American people who had just come through a horrendous war but could still feel compassion for the unwitting victims of that war. The Marshal Plan was probably the perfect embodiment of that spirit and generosity.
It is a book that could not be written today.
It is easy – perhaps too easy – to label the author’s depiction of characters in the novel as stereotypical, and his depiction of Joppolo’s attitude towards the citizens of Adano as condescending and paternalistic. At least part of the problem is that the charm of Hersey’s prose tends to mask the extent to which his characters embody both virtue and vice. Joppolo’s aide-de-camp cleverly humiliates a former facist official up to no good, but his intentions towards the women in the town are unabashedly crude. General Martin delights in liberating Italy from wicked facists, but thinks nothing of brutally slaughtering a donkey belonging to a peasant, simply because he has the temerity to get in his way. Even the actions of Joppolo are depicted as a recognizably human balance between idealism (believing in the superiority of the “American Way”) and vanity (wanting to win the love/admiration of the townspeople), loyalty (to his country) and disloyalty (to his wife).
In short, I believe that perceived anachronisms in this tale may accurately represent actual anachronisms that existed at this fascinating moment in U.S. history. It was a time when average villagers in small rural European towns genuinely were unsophisticated, when America genuinely did feel a paternalistic responsibility towards the rest of the world; a time when newly-minted Americans embraced cultural stereotypes as a way of celebrating their country’s diversity, and when American servicemen saw nothing hypocritical in idealizing their wives while simultaneously seeking the physical solace of foreign damsels. Hersey’s gift is helping us to see how these anachronisms have shaped (and continue to shape) the way the world has come to view Americans, and the way we have come to view ourselves.
I actually liked it a lot more than I thought I would. For one, it just happened to take place on a military base during a major war, as opposed to being a detailed account of fighter jets, battles and general military bullshit. Jopollo is a good dude, and he spends the book trying to replace the priceless and historic bell of Adano, which was stolen by the Facists and melted down to make cannons.
This isn't a book I would really recommend to anyone, because it really wasn't anything particularly special for me. It definitely was served well by the fact that I'd gone into it assuming that I'd hate it.
As I read I was drawn in to the story and the Major's efforts to improve the infrastructure of this town following the toppling of Mussolini. Among the problems he faces is the loss of the town's 700 year old bell, which Mussolini had ordered to be taken and melted down for the metal for weapons. The bell was the heart of the town it seems.
The story is told in a simple, gentle style, very unlike modern novels. It is a very American story, and rather paternalistic. There's also a sort of sub-theme in here that America's strength came from being a nation of immigrants. There are sweet, odd and interesting characters in here that I enjoyed observing and getting to know. A glimpse at a world that no longer exists. I liked it quite a bit.
Hersey wrote A Bell for Adano from interviews of real people in Italy during the war, and from interviews with a local American who was the military commandant for the Americans and who was the inspiration for this book.
I came away with a great appreciation of the charm of Italy, and will always remember the commandant as an example of what a decent American ought to be in this kind of situation. Our military today may have not read this book, but I understand that General Petraeus is pushing the same kind of soft skills into our military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hersey mentions one of the Mussolini fascists still uncaptured and who is trying a rearguard action to stir up trouble for the Americans. Now I understand how sedition is preached by word of mouth.
Putting all my political treatment aside, this book merits a very good read for anyone who wants a wonderful and charming read.
I now have — and regret to say that I’m quite underwhelmed by it, all of the positive reviews here and at Amazon notwithstanding.
Forgive me. I know that Hersey won the Pulitzer Prize for this book. And although the Pulitzer’s not the Nobel, it’s something.
I just don’t see it. The characters are too pat. The dialogue is at times downright silly. The plot-line, too obvious.
Although it is possible that a Christ-like character in the mold of Major Joppolo exists somewhere on the planet, and although it is even more likely that an antichrist-like character (or dozens of them) in the guise of General Marvin populates the military, the timing of their first and only meeting, of General Marvin’s arbitrary and pigheaded order that carts would henceforth not be allowed inside the gates of Adano, and of Joppolo’s recall from Adano (for eventually countermanding that order) the very evening the whole town of Adano is celebrating his “reign” is, well, just a tad too pat. It makes for a warm and fuzzy story, no question; but realistic?
Where I think Hersey does earn accolades is in his portrayal of many of the mediocrities in the military. War is bad enough. But to add to it the stupidity and pigheadedness of officers who govern the conduct and eventual outcome of that war is, well, downright disheartening — to say the very least. As Hersey suggests at one point in his story, the ultimate goal of a soldier is, quite simply, to get home. If possible, in one piece. As we know from history, and as John Hersey makes clear in this fictional account, certain officers can make that simple goal a very real challenge.
No sooner is he settled into the Mayor's office than he's approached by two elderly men offering advice. "Tell me," asks Joppolo, what does this town need the most right now?" One tells him food is the biggest need; the other says, "It needs a bell more than anything." The backstory is quickly revealed. Days before the invasion, the Fascists lowered a historic bell from the town clock tower and shipped it off to be melted for arms. Further interviews show the townspeople are united in a desire for a bell. Cockamamie though it seems, Joppolo initiates a search for the relic.
Along about this time, General Marvin, commander of the fighting troops, tries to blow through town, but is stymied by a mule cart weaving along the narrow roadway. Enraged, the general orders his aides to dump the cart off the road and to shoot the mule. He bans the carts from the road, which means the carts can't get to Adano and that Adano can't get food or even water.
In just the next few days, Joppolo countermands the general's ban, learns the bell's been melted down and launches a search for a suitable substitute, cajoles a Navy officer into raising an Axis ship that sank in the harbor so its cargo can be sold to benefit the town, persuades the local fishermen to go back to work so fresh fish are available in the town, quells fears of a bogus gas attack, sends the Facist—and still troublesome—former mayor to prison camp, deals with the death of a child scrambling for candy tossed from military trucks, struggles with afflection for a local woman.
And all the while, a report of Joppolo's countermand of General Marvin's ban wends its way to the general's desk, despite the efforts of junior officers and clerks to misdirect it, lose it, misfile it.
[A Bell for Adano] was John Hersey's first novel. Published in 1944, it won the fiction Pulitzer in 1945.
This was a wonderful story of a town and its people. The people were adorable and funny and pains at times. As Major Joppolo deals fairly and justly with these people, he also tries to find their bell. He is able to schmooze with the best of them to get what is needed and what he wants. Even when Americans are at fault he shows the townspeople that his justice extends to his men as well as the townspeople.
The ending is bittersweet. I would like to know what happens to both the townspeople and Major Joppolo. They are not characters I will forget for a long time.
A realistic story of war and humanity.