My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor
A scheme to smuggle escaped prisoners of war out of wartime Rome by a member of the Vatican clergy, helped by a variety of sympathizers is constantly imperiled by the scrutiny of the Nazi occupiers, the sanctity of the Vatican City’s neutral status notwithstanding. It is a nonstop thrill ride with plenty of Italian flavor, spiced with a touch of the Irish.
During World War II the Germans, late in the war, occupied Italy and particularly the city of Rome in an attempt to keep the unruly and independent-minded Italians in line. The one place they did not invade was the Vatican City, a neutral country under international law. This ban was honored throughout all the other strife that engulfed the city and the country. A secret escape line for refugees from prison camps was run from the holy site by an Irish Monsignor and a group of collaborators known as “The Choir”. This much is true; the novel is a fictionalization of their work.
Father Hugh O’Flaherty has a rigid moral compass that often steers him into trouble with his superiors, who are concerned about protecting the safe-haven status of the Vatican City and, of course, the pope. When he openly mocks and defies the Nazi authorities in charge of the prisoners of war that are his assigned flock, he is told to “back off”. He, naturally, does no such thing and in fact organizes a network of like-minded Italians and other fellow sympathizers to smuggle as many of those who escape the camps as possible. Using street vendors, owners of shops and apartments, barns and warehouses, he oversees a web of safe houses and clandestine methods of travel to achieve these ends. He is aided by a motley crew of aristocrats, diplomats and others with helpful connections despite the ever-present danger of exposure and the threat of inevitable execution that will surely follow.
Told in a variety of voices, some recounted as statements given many years afterword for broadcasts by the media, some as real-time narration of the events the story is rife with suspense and a plethora of thrills. Skillfully crafted dialogue using distinctive language peculiar to the ethnicity or national origins of the speaker adds to the flavor and color of this first-rate thriller set in a time and place that still fascinate us. Any lover of WWII stories, mysteries or spy tales will embrace this with open arms.