Every so often I feel inadequate writing a review because I fear it cannot express my reverence for the book’s writing. Such is the case now. My words about John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano are a tinkling triangle compared with the deep, full, rich town bell Major Joppolo insisted on for Adano. Hersey’s 1944 novel well deserved the 1945 Pulitzer Prize. When I read this book for high school English in the late 1960s, I could not possibly have grasped its depth and wisdom. Almost 50 years, four major U.S. overseas conflicts, some foreign travel, and a more realistic understanding of human nature later, I can now appreciate Hersey’s story. And I am a different citizen because of this book. I only hope more Americans will read this novel today. Here’s why:
· Although John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano takes place in World War II, it is more about human nature than about that war.
· Although A Bell for Adano shows the general nature of wars, it is more about why the United States fights them.
· Although A Bell for Adano is about ideologies underlying regimes, it is clear that of all the U.S. military personnel occupying Adano, only one man is a patriot for the right reasons.
· Although that one man, Major Joppolo, exhibits daily justice, mercy, wisdom, and democratic government to Adano’s people, he is subject to U.S. military personnel who abuse authority and do not understand democracy.
To see the blossoming of Adano’s townspeople from cowering, bitter, closet-rebels under Fascism to welcoming, cooperative citizens under Major Joppolo’s loving and respectful administration of democracy filled me with joy to be American. To see Major Joppolo’s U.S. military colleagues take advantage of and even be cruel toward the Italian people whose town they occupied filled me with horror at our part in the arrogance the world sees in Americans.
Reading this novel did indeed produce mixed emotions. I also very much enjoyed the book and didn’t want it to end. Hersey created colorful characters and lively authentic dialog, which gave an intriguing pace and many funny moments. The book is full of little descriptive gems like “the man who still wears spurs even though he rides everywhere in an armored car.” Major Joppolo seems to have the wisdom of Solomon when solving townspeople’s myriad problems. I especially liked how he finds the source of runaway inflation and solves it. He has human weaknesses, of course, but Major Joppolo gives the reader a living example of how democracy is supposed to work.
Toward the beginning of his time as acting mayor of Adano, Major Joppolo gathers his team of administrators and tells in words what he tries to live out [page 45 in my edition]: “Adano has been a Fascist town. That is natural, because the country was Fascist, therefore the town was also. But now that the Americans have come, we are going to run the town as a democracy. Perhaps you do not know what a democracy is. I will tell you. Democracy is this: Democracy is that the men of the government are no longer the masters of the people. They are the servants of the people. … Therefore you are now the servants of the people of Adano. I too am their servant. When I go to buy bread, I shall take my place at the end of the line, and I will wait my turn. … Remember, you are servants now. You are servants of the people of Adano. And watch: This thing will make you happier than you have ever been in your lives.”
If only we could live this out …