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  • Historicized Fiction or Fictionalized History?Lia Levi's Cecilia va alla guerra and the Legacy of the First World War in Contemporary Italian Children's Literature
  • Lindsay Myers (bio)

Historical fiction has always been a popular genre in international children's literature, and recent decades have seen a notable increase in the number of novels for children set during the First World War. Providing authentic experiences of past events while simultaneously respecting the attitudes and norms of today's readers can, however, constitute a significant ideological and philosophical conundrum. As Catherine Butler and Hallie O'Donovan have observed, "in a world riven by the effect of cultural mistrust and incomprehension writers seem to face a difficult choice: that of presenting a sanitized past with at least the sympathetic characters displaying an ahistorically liberal sensibility; or appearing to normalise and perpetuate those attitudes through fiction."1 Innovative narrative techniques and point-of-view shifts can be effective tools for engaging contemporary readers with the past, and narratives with first-person perspectives and multiple focalization have become extremely popular in contemporary First World War fiction for children.2 The employment of unconventional narrative perspectives is not, however, in and of itself, inherently progressive; the ideological message of any text being as bound up with the plot, the language, the structural patterns, and the characterization as well as with the accompanying paratextual materials. National biases can also often exert a powerful influence on the content and style of children's historical fiction, particularly when the work is set during a founding moment in that nation's history.

Italy's experience of the First World War was markedly different from that of other participating nations. Unlike Great Britain, France, Russia, [End Page 167] and Germany who entered the conflict in 1914 as a result of the invasion of Serbia, Italy did not enter the war until May 1915, and when she did join her reasons for doing so were primarily territorial. The Italian government was hopeful that an Allied victory would result in the acquisition of Trieste, Gorizia, and Trentino, lands on the Austro-Italian border which many believed to be the rightful possession of the newly united nation. The battles for which the Italian soldiers were recruited were all against the nation's archenemies the Austrians—even if many of the latter ones witnessed the demise of as many German as Austrian soldiers. The wartime propaganda continually cast the conflict as an extension of the Italian Unification, a process that had begun in the early eighteen hundreds and had given rise in 1861 to the establishment of the Kingdom of Italy. Nineteenth-century Italian children's literature was rife with irredentism, and the idea that the First World War was the final stage in the nation's struggle for independence permeated almost all of the reading material directed at children during the conflict.3

The interwar years were not marked in Italy, as they were in the rest of Europe, by a period of disillusionment but rather witnessed the rise of Italian Fascism. The wartime concept of the First World War as a war of Italian independence was skillfully appropriated by the fascist government for the purposes of political propaganda. The First World War remained a key theme in postwar Italian children's fiction and many authors consciously perpetuated and extended the Italian narratives written for children during the First World War in order to draw a direct line between the heroes of this conflict and their fascist successors.4

Once the Second World War ended attempts to reconcile Italy's "insular" perspective of the First World War with the climate of international solidarity became increasingly difficult. Postwar Italian children's authors simply could not continue to portray the First World War in the manner in which it had been portrayed up to that point. They did not, however, revisit the period, as did their international counterparts, but rather concentrated instead on the Second World War—a conflict that was far more conducive to the expression of pacifist and humanitarian messages than was the First World War. Almost all of the wartime and immediate postwar Italian children's books on the First World...


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pp. 167-185
Launched on MUSE
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