In a Flash
A riveting and dramatic story of two devoted sisters, Italian citizens, who must survive in WWII Japan.
In 1940, when Simona is eight and her sister, Carolina, is five, their father becomes the cook to the Italian ambassador to Japan, and the family leaves Italy for Tokyo. The girls learn perfect Japanese, make friends, and begin to love life in their new home. But soon Japan is engaged in a world war. In 1943, when all Italians in Japan are confined to internment camps as enemy aliens, Papà and the girls are forced to part, and Simona and Carolina embark on a dramatic journey. Anyone who aids them could be arrested for treason. All the sisters have is each other: their wits, courage, and resilience, and the hope that they will find people who see them not as the enemy, but simply as children trying to survive.
In this gripping, deeply moving story, Donna Jo Napoli gives readers an unforgettable and authentic new perspective on World War II.
An Excerpt fromIn a Flash
24 July 1940, Lido di Ostia, Italy
I close my eyes and fall back into the sand with my hands clasped under my head. All I see through my eyelids is the red fire of the sun. All I smell is the sea. It makes me think of lemons. The waves pound close by as Carolina shovels sand into her tin pail. Scrape, scrape.
I wipe sweat from my eyebrows and around my lips. Everyone says the summer of 1934, when Mamma was pregnant with Carolina, was the hottest. I don’t remember it because I was only two and a half. But they say this summer is nearly as hot.
I pinch my nose and prepare to be buried in sand by Carolina.
I sit up and blink. I see a dazzling spray of colors—blue water, dark streaks in the sand, the white swan painted on Carolina’s yellow pail. But no Carolina. My throat clutches. Where is she?
Salty water drips onto my head, stinging my eyes. I grin up at her as she sprinkles me with my watering can.
“Grow!” she screams.
I squat and gradually rise, like the enchanted bean plant in a fable. Soon I’m too tall for Carolina to water; I’m eight and she isn’t even six yet. Carolina dances around me, laughing. “A giant Simona!” she shouts to Nonna.
Nonna sits on a turned-over wooden box, like all the other grandmothers on the beach. She shades herself with her pink umbrella and smiles.
“Lunchtime!” Nonna calls.
Carolina runs into the waves to rinse her pail and my old watering can, with the faded blue flowers. We didn’t buy new ones this year. There weren’t any in the shop because all the metal is needed for our wars. Papà said smart people are frugal these days anyway.
I brush the sand off the wooden box Nonna was sitting on and balance it on my head as we walk. Nonna holds her umbrella. Carolina holds everything else.
“Want to guess what I’m making for lunch?” Nonna asks, and smiles.
“Pasta.” Carolina skips ahead.
“Of course. So guess what else.”
“Zucchini flowers,” I say.
“How did you know?”
“The vines are full of blossoms.”
“Orange flowers, green salad, red sauce on the pasta,” says Nonna. “The eye will be as happy as the stomach.”
She loves cooking so much, it sometimes seems she must be Papà’s mother rather than Mamma’s. Papà is the best cook in Ostia; some say the best in all of Rome. Nonna says the best cook in all Italy.
Nonna goes in to start cooking while Carolina and I pick the zucchini blossoms. Then we walk inside to the welcome of the cool dark.
Papà is home! The way he is standing now, with his black curls tight to his head and his thin beaky nose, he makes me think of the black stork we saw in the marsh once. Carolina runs into his hug, crushing the flowers in her arms. Having Papà in the middle of the day is a treat.
I smile. Then hesitate. Lunch is the busiest meal at Papà’s tavern. Why is he home?
Nonna sits at the kitchen table, hands limp in her lap. She should be at the stove.
A big suitcase stands on the floor beside Papà. I’ve never seen it before. “What’s going on?”
“Your father has lost his mind,” says Nonna.
Papà gives a quick laugh. “I’m going to be the cook in an embassy.”
“That sounds . . . good,” I say.
“I’ll make more money,” says Papà. “A man from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs heard about my cooking and came to the tavern to taste it. I didn’t know. Today he came back and offered me a job. Think of that. I’ll be the cook at the Italian embassy.”
I nod happily.
“In Japan,” Nonna says. “Halfway around the world.”
Carolina and I look at each other.
Carolina snatches her rag doll, Lella, from the shelf and goes to sit beside Nonna. Her fingers comb through Lella’s yellow yarn hair, as though the conversation doesn’t matter. But her shoulders bunch up.
“The new Italian ambassador to Japan has been in Tokyo barely a week, but he hates the food,” says Papà. “He needs real Italian food. My food.”
“Japan,” says Nonna. “Luciano, Japan is at war with China.”
Papà stands taller. “The man from Foreign Affairs predicts Japan’s war with China will be over soon. Maybe even before I start the new job.”
“Hasn’t that war been going for years already? Maybe he’d say anything to get you to take the job.”
“I doubt that. Besides, all the fighting is on Chinese soil. Japan is safe.”
Nonna gapes at Papà. “Safe?”
“Safer than Italy. Europe is at war: Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands.” Papà counts off the countries on his fingers. “And now France.”
“Germany invaded those countries.” Nonna shakes her head. “Germany won’t invade Italy. Mussolini and Hitler have a pact. The Pact of Steel. Italy and Germany are friends.”
“But that pact is exactly the problem.” Papà comes toward the table, palms together. He shakes his hands as he walks. “That’s why Mussolini declared war on France and Great Britain.”
Carolina looks at me, baffled, but I remember that announcement. On a Monday in mid-June—a month ago. Papà was home because the tavern is closed on Mondays. He was slicing tomatoes for dinner and listening to the radio news. He cried out in pain. I ran in because I thought he’d cut his finger. He sat me down and explained that because of the Pact of Steel, Germany’s enemies were Italy’s enemies; Germany was at war with France and Great Britain, so Italy was, too.
Now Papà puts both hands on the table and leans across toward Nonna. “Italian troops invaded France right alongside German troops. Mamma Raffaella, dear sweet one, you listen to the radio. You read the newspapers. You don’t want to believe it, but you have to. There’s going to be fighting in Italy,” he says quietly. “Soon.”
Fighting here? At school the boys dress in black shirts and gray-green trousers to look like soldiers’ uniforms. It shows their loyalty to our leader, Mussolini, and the Fascist party. The boys have mock battles. Our teachers talk about real battles all the time, but those battles are far away—in Egypt, Spain, Albania—and Italy always wins. No one says anything about battles here in Italy. My teeth clench so hard my jaw hurts.
Nonna has her hand over her mouth. Now she lets it fall into her lap again. “If you’re so sure of that, how could you accept the job? Your poor girls. They’ve lost so much already. Their mother . . .” She stops. Then, “They’ll miss you.”
“Miss me? No, no. We’re all going. All four of us. There’s room for the whole family, right in the embassy.”
Nonna is shaking her head again. She fingers her watchband.
Papà looks at me, then at Carolina. “Do you want to go with me, girls?”
“Yes!” shouts Carolina.
A new country. A new school. But safe. With Papà and Nonna. I try to smile.
Leaving behind friends. And this house. Where Mamma lived, till she died in January.
Everything is different in a flash.
“I’m too old for this.” Nonna puts on her headscarf and goes out the door. She shuts it so softly, it swings open again. She’s going to church. That’s what she does when she’s upset.
Papà is looking at me. Waiting. “Don’t worry about Nonna. I’ll talk to her. We’ll go for a year, two at most. Simona. Carolina. You’ll get to see a bit of the world. An adventure. And . . .” His voice is nearly a whisper now. “A change would help us in lots of ways, Simona. We’ve all been . . . sad. . . . I don’t know how to say it. But you’re smart. You know what I mean.”