Written by Shirley Hughes
Thirteen year old Paolo is the hero on a bicycle, but the book is not just about him. The setting is the city of Florence, Italy (1943-1944), but the scope of the story is of life in war-torn Europe and the daily heroism of people trying to maintain a semblance of normality in very difficult times.
Rosemary is a Britisher married to Florentine Franco Crivelli, whose anti-Fascist leanings make it dangerous for him to stay at home. He disappears, nobody knows where. Rosemary is left to manage life in Nazi-occupied Florence: the daily food supplies, the sense of danger around every street corner, and the frustrations of her increasingly isolated teenagers.
Paolo is restless. Constanza is caught in a double bind: she knows Paolo rides out every night, understands his need for that freedom, and will not snitch to their mom. However, she has her own longings which she cannot share because Mom’s burden is heavy enough. Her outlet is playing old records over and over again. Rosemary, aware of their thoughts “reflected grimly on the old cliché that wartime, when not terrifying, was a combination of long stretches of boredom and grinding hardship.”
Into this mix is thrown the Partisan fervor and the foreboding German presence. The author says in an interview (http://www.heroonabicycle.co.uk/p/plot.html) that it is a “straightforward thriller”, but to today’s reader it is not just a thriller, but also a story about the essential goodness of all people. Rosemary performs dangerous work with the Partisans to give shelter to Allied soldiers. Helmut Grass, the German officer discovers that the Crivelli family is hiding an escaped Allied prisoner of war (he finds a part of a cigarette pack which shows the words Lucky Strike, an American brand), but does not disclose that information to his commanding officer. Constanza thinks, “It was difficult to think of him as The Enemy, someone against whom she and her family were about to pit all their courage and humanity.” Hilaria’s family benefits from their Fascist sympathies, but she warns her friend Constanza that Rosemary was on some kind of Gestapo list. Il Volpe, the Partisan leader, stops for a brief moment to acknowledge Paolo’s presence, even as he escaping from the German firing squad. In big ways and small, people demonstrate their basic humanity.
Teachers and librarians should start with the “thriller” element of the story, and then create reading activities and discussions about that bygone era. There is much that can be learned from the book.