Coming of Age in Italy's Darkest Years
Angel of Alta Langa: A Novel of Love and War
"Angel of Alta Langa" is a fast-paced, spellbinding saga of heartwarming emotion, unimaginable evil, gut-wrenching suspense, and abiding love. From the vineyards of Barbaresco and the forests of Alta Langa, to the putrid cells of a prison in Turin, two young Piemontese girls come of age amid the horror—and the humanity—of Italy’s darkest years of the twentieth century.
"The Angel is a spectacular, sophisticated, and gripping story about the life of real people in a challenging and painful period of Italy’s history. The author’s deft development of an array of complex characters and a story line that encompasses the highs and lows of a poignant period of history all make for a riveting read."
"An emotional roller-coaster of a book which I couldn't put down! I virtually 'lived' the WW2 partisan life in the Italian Langhe vineyards with these wonderful characters and experienced all their joys, horrors and heartbreaks. A powerful and important story based on truth and beautifully written from the heart. It now lies in mine!"
Ceaseless ringing in her ears and jackboots reverberating on the stone floor of the hall woke her from a fitful sleep. How many were there this time? With each thud, the sounds grew louder and nearer. They were coming for her.
She rolled over on the putrid mattress, willing her body to ready itself for them. Bedbugs had feasted on her since her first night in Le Nuove Prison. Mice fought one another for morsels of her paltry rations. It was as though the vermin in her cell were allied with her torturers.
Blood from the wounds they had inflicted and her monthly blood that had come early stained her trousers. She touched her cracked lips, the scabbing gash on her head. The manacles they slapped on her when she was taken for interrogation cut into her swollen left wrist that now constantly throbbed—no doubt a fracture from the fall when they pushed her from the truck that night.
Her face, struck more times than she could remember, was swollen. Was she even recognizable? Even one of her most distinctive features, her soft, wavy hair, was now a dark, greasy snarl caked with blood from the gash on her head. That was the idea, she knew—to strip her of her dignity until she felt meaningless to herself and easily gave all she knew. Despite inflicting pain beyond telling, they were unable to break her.
They marched past her door, spreading terror throughout the cells, keeping the advantage of surprise. For whom would they come? Anyone, everyone. And when? Anytime.
The days since her capture probably numbered ten. Each time she returned to her cell, she scratched a notch in the thick grime covering the walls, but with consciousness ebbing and flowing, she was uncertain of the passage of time. Frigid air whistled through the wind-tunnel corridor. The naked bulb overhead and the glaring blades of light from the hall illuminated her world at night. It was always dark when she was taken for the sessions where, through torturous means, they attempted to extract information. Three times, she had been dragged into a truck and driven to a distant house of horrors where German, not Italian, was spoken. It was there they inflicted the worst of her pain. Otherwise, she never left the infamous Le Nuove prison.
When she no longer could restrain her screams, which she tried desperately to suppress lest giving the demons more pleasure, suor Giuseppina de Muro would play Ave Maria on a ramshackle piano. The dissonant strains calmed her. Long ago, the nun had come to Le Nuove as a nursing sister. Now she was the only source of comfort in the wretched place. Would the saintly woman ever know the far reach of her music? She sang to herself the comforting words of the blessed song she had learned from a loved one, praying for release from her agony, but if not, for protection of those whose lives were at risk if her resolve failed. And for her family, wherever they were.
Had all but the one partisan with her been slaughtered at the cascina that night? So it appeared from the silence as she was dragged, drifting in and out of consciousness, through the frigid darkness. The blasts of orange light shooting from the barrels of machine guns were all the warning the partisans had received. Then stillness. And flames. She heard a woman’s shrill voice call her name before she sank into unconsciousness from a blow to the side of her head. Who had betrayed them? Whoever it had been, she knew she had been spared that night for one reason: only she knew the names. Only she knew the location of the one they sought—the one she knew had survived, hidden in the forest.
All of a sudden, it was quiet. The jackbooted tormentors had stopped at her cell.
It was indeed her turn. Keys rattled, the lock turned, and tired, dry hinges squeaked as the iron door was opened. Through her swollen eyes, a vaguely familiar face she could not discern in the dim light came into focus.
“Alzati! Adesso!” one of the Blackshirts shouted. “Stand up, I said!” Before she could will her body to respond, someone dragged her to her feet, but her legs disobeyed. Down she went on the hard, filthy floor. Again, the Fascist screamed, “Up!” This time when she staggered, a male prison guard, who often leered at her and whose foul breath blended with the stench of the cell, slapped her bruised face and pinned her against the wall with his body. Suor Giuseppina often interceded when the lecherous guard was on duty. Not this time. She did not appear. “Wake up!” he shouted, his face pressed up against hers and his over-sized hands roaming her body, close to her breasts. “Enough!” ordered the man whose words gripped her throat like talons. The guard relented, and though bile rose in her throat, she willed her legs to obey.
No shackles this time. Did they believe they had broken her will to escape? To survive? She took her first tentative steps toward the open door when the owner of the still-obscured face spoke in that same menacing tone. “We meet again,” he hissed, contempt dripping with each word. “Did you really believe you would not be caught?” She knew the voice, and it filled her with dread. She tried to see his face in the hall light, but the Blackshirt jerked her left arm, pain and weakness sending her to the ground once again.
As they approached the outer door of the prison, fresh cold air brought into focus a world she believed she would never see again. The amber light the rising sun cast on the distant mountains signaled that it was early morning. She squinted in the unaccustomed sunshine. Overhead was a pale-blue, winter morning sky—its purity a blessing. In the distance, the familiar snow-covered Monviso called to her. The forested valleys of il Re di pietra, as the mountain was called, had given the partisans shelter in their fight against the Germans and the Fascist Blackshirts.
Now, the king of mountains was powerless to protect her, but the majesty of the early morning was speaking, and the gratitude in her heart was a comfort.
They stuffed her into a truck where the Blackshirt held her, clenching her fractured wrist. She cried out. He tightened his grip. Thankfully, her legs, though weak, remained intact, ready to spirit her away if opportunity arose. Did anyone know where she was? The partisans were known to save their comrades, to save those who saved them, but Le Nuove was a fortress.
Although it had been impossible for her to see their route on previous journeys, this time she sensed a different destination. The man whose face she still had not seen spoke her name again as though to cleanse his mouth of a foul taste. “I should have put a bullet in your head in the forest for all the help you’ve been. But it was pleasant to finally demonstrate the power I have over you—power I have always had. But when I catch that bitch who shot me…” he growled. So that’s why he had not appeared at Le Nuove for days after he had captured her. He would be dead had his assailant not been injured herself, struggling no doubt to hold the gun.
When they dragged her off the truck, she looked about at her unfamiliar surroundings, recognizing the unmistakable stench of death. The guards marched her to a bullet-riddled wall where, in slush mixed with human excrement, a high-backed, wooden chair sat facing the redbrick wall. A guard pushed her onto it and grabbed her arms, tying them tightly behind her back. She was now beyond pain. The awareness of her circumstances washed over her. She had heard of partisans who faced this favored form of execution once nothing more could be wrung from them. The place, they said, was known as il Martinetto.
The rope was tight enough to hold her steady. She tilted her face toward the blue sky and thought of those whom she dearly loved and whose lives she had protected. Yes, no doubt the partisans at the cascina were gone, but others who fought with them to free Piemonte from the Germans and their Fascist collaborators were safe. The work would go on and Piemonte would be free. Soon. This time, she heard, the Allies were coming.
Someone approached through the slush. She turned her head. Ah, the man. Finally, in the daylight, she saw his true demonic face she knew all too well. Those dark eyes, windows into Hell. He grabbed her matted hair and jerked her head to face the wall. I will meet the moment without malice, she resolved. And she felt the cold steel of his pistol at the base of her skull. He spat out her name.
Suzanne Hoffman—born in New Orleans and raised in Louisiana’s bayou country—is an attorney and passionate storyteller. Suzanne’s first book, "Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte," is an award-winning and groundbreaking collection of the life stories of generations of twenty-two wine families. "Angel of Alta Langa: A Novel of Love & War" is Suzanne’s second book and debut historical novel set in Piemonte, Italy in the early decades of the 20th century. Although for most of her life she called the Louisiana and Switzerland home, Suzanne and her husband now reside in the heart of the Colorado Rockies.