When thirteen-year-old Paolo Crivelli sneaks out for midnight joy rides through Nazi-occupied Florence, he imagines himself a hero on a bicycle. By day, he is cooped up at home with his mother, sister, and faithful dog Guido, with nothing to do but wait for the approaching Allied forces to push out the Germans. At night, Paolo is able to escape into a more exciting world tinged with danger, first by fooling his mother into thinking he’s safely in bed, then by evading military police patrolling the streets and riding past shadowy men lurking about the street corners. Men who could be Partisans just like his father, who was forced into hiding because of his political views against Mussolini and Hitler.
What Paolo doesn’t know is that his sister and mother are very aware of his nightly activities, to the point where it keeps them up at night. Constanza, Paolo’s teenage sister, sympathizes with her younger brother’s need to escape. Hers manifests itself in the form of retreating to her room and listening to the same Edith Piaf and Rina Ketty records over and over again, but to Paolo, she just seems moody and aloof. Their mother Rosemary, who is British by birth and Italian by marriage, also understands her son’s need for excitement, but his nightly activities are yet another source of constant worry for her. In addition to her husband’s whereabouts and safety, the daily challenge of making sure her family has enough to eat, and keeping a low profile from both the Gestapo and the Partisans, she wonders every night if she should confront her son about his activities in the morning.
As it turns out, she doesn’t get the chance to decide. Paolo may look to the Partisans for adventure, but when they come to him demanding his family’s involvement in a risky and dangerous mission, Paolo gets more than he envisions for a hero on a bike.
Set against the backdrop of WWII with midnight exploits, dangers, and suspense, I never truly believed any harm would come to the Crivellis. That didn’t keep me from worrying about them. Hero is very much character-driven and I found myself rooting for Paolo and his family. And I appreciated Constanza most of all. It would have been easy to write her off as Paolo’s moody teenager sister who mopes about fashion even though there’s a war on. But as the story progress, we see she’s aloof because she’s a typical teenager and because she doesn’t want to add to her mother’s burdens. Better yet, Constanza demonstrates considerable courage and comes into her own as a kind and resolute young adult in a way that stands out to me even more so than Paolo’s big moment.
Author Shirley Hughes’ secondary characters are also worth mentioning. We only glimpse them through their interactions with Rosemary, Constanza, and Paolo, but they (aside from the Gestapo officer) still feel fleshed-out rather than black or white. The young German lieutenant who puts friendship above creed, Constanza’s bratty friend who enjoys blackmarket luxuries, the Crivelli’s servant’s relative who finds himself in a tough moral dilemma, the complexities of these individuals also makes this wartime fiction more gripping and real. I appreciated as well that Hughes doesn’t pound her readers over the head with a definition of what it means to be brave or heroic. Instead, we’re told the danger and the risks and given insight to how a character feels inside, and then Hughes briskly continues her narrative with that character’s actions.
Lastly, it may sound silly, but I really liked Hero’s length. At a respectable 213 pages, Hughes manages to tell a vivid yet concise story. Perhaps it’s because of Hughes’ rich experience as an author and illustrator of picture books, but she’s mastered the art of saying a lot in relatively few words. In Hero On A Bicycle, the result is an intimate yet satisfying tale.
Note: to see more of Hughes’ drawings for Hero On A Bicycle, I highly recommend a visit to her website.