The Madonna of the Mountains

A Novel

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“A riveting adventure for the soul . . . just the kind of evocative historical fiction I love.”—Sara Gruen, author of At the Water’s Edge and Water for Elephants

An epic, inspiring novel about one woman’s survival in the hardscrabble Italian countryside and her determination to protect her family throughout the Second World War—by any means possible


Maria Vittoria is twenty-five when her father brings home the man who will become her husband. It is 1923 in the austere Italian mountain village where her family has lived for generations, and the man she sees is tall and handsome and has survived the First World War without any noticeable scars. Taking just the linens she has sewn that make up her dowry and a statue of the Madonna that sits by her bedside, Maria leaves the only life she has ever known to begin a family. But her future will not be what she imagines.

The Madonna of the Mountains follows Maria over the next three decades, as she moves to the town where she and her husband become shopkeepers, through the birth of their five children, through the hardships and cruelties of the National Fascist Party Rule and the Second World War. Struggling with the cost of survival at a time when food is scarce and allegiances are questioned, Maria trusts no one and fears everyone—her Fascist cousin, the madwoman from her childhood, her watchful neighbors, the Nazis and the Partisans who show up hungry at her door. As Maria’s children grow up and her marriage endures its own hardships, she must hold her family together with resilience, love, and faith, until she makes a fateful decision that will change the course of all their lives.

A sweeping saga about womanhood, loyalty, war, religion, family, food, motherhood, and marriage, The Madonna of the Mountains is a poignant look at the span of one woman’s life as the rules change and her world becomes unrecognizable. In depicting the great cost of war and the ineluctable power of time on a life, Elise Valmorbida has created an unforgettable portrait of a woman navigating both the unforeseen and the inevitable.

Advance praise for Madonna of the Mountains

“The moral and ethical questions raised propel the story beyond the particulars into the universal.”Kirkus Reviews

“It is a bewitching but entirely unsentimental portrait of one woman’s attempt to keep her family safe in turbulent times.”—The Times (UK), Book of the Month

“A solid choice for readers who appreciate layered family sagas.”Library Journal

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Madonna of the Mountains

Chapter One

1923

Snow-­melt

Her father has gone to find her a husband. He’s taken his mule, a photograph and a pack of food: homemade sopressa sausage, cold polenta, a little flask of wine—­no need to take water—­the world is full of water. It’s Springtime, when a betrothal might happen, as sudden as a wild cyclamen from a wet rock, as sweet as a tiny violet fed by melting mountain snow.

Maria Vittoria is embroidering a sheet for her dowry trunk.

Everyone is working hard, making use of the light. Twelve huddled households chopping, fixing, hammering, cooking, washing, hoeing, setting traps, pruning vines, stripping and weaving white willow, planting the tough seeds, oats, tobacco, cabbage, onions, peas, and the animals are making their usual racket—­but the whole contrà feels wanting without her father. A body without a head.

In his breast pocket he has the only photograph there is of her, made when she was seventeen, together with her sisters, brothers, parents, grandparents. She’s almost unmarriageable now, at twenty-­five years old, but she’s strong and healthy and her little sister Egidia says she’s pretty. It’s just bad luck, or God’s will, or destiny, that there are no eligible men in this valley or the next one, just sickly inbreds and hunchbacks and men mutilated by the Austrians. It doesn’t help that the contrà is so hard to get to, so far from the towns. And her father won’t accept the hand of just anyone—­he has his name and standing to consider. He owns some property. He is a man of business. He even has notepaper with his name printed on it.

Before the photograph, before the evacuation, Maria had a proposal. The fellow had come all the way from Villafranca, he had documents saying he didn’t have to fight anymore, that he’d have a proper pension and special privileges. But he’d lost a finger and an eye.

Who knows what else he’s missing? her father said when he turned down the offer. We can do better than that.

And Mama said what everyone says, all the cousins, all the women: no se rifiuta nessun, gnanca se l’è gobo e storto. Refuse nobody, even if he’s hunchbacked and crooked. And Papà told her to shut up with her stupid sayings.

Maria whispers to herself, imagining a field daisy, pulling off one petal after another.

El me ama

El me abrama

El me abracia

El me vol ben

El me mantien

El me ama

El me abrama

Nol me vole

El me dise su.

He loves me

He covets me

He hugs me

He cares for me

He supports me

He loves me

He covets me

He doesn’t want me

He tells me off.

She repeats prayers from The Christian Bride. This book, her only book, is dear to her. Small, bound in blue leather, with tiny gold lines around each page, it has more prayers than she can say and more sermons than she can remember, but the guidance at the beginning—­for my dear young girl—­lifts her spirit and shows her the way. While you pray, you do well to add light mortifications of the flesh. This is a way of offering sacrifice and also releasing your spirit from life’s petty irritations.

She pricks herself with the needle, in her fingertips. She watches as the blood appears. Her sewing must wait. She wipes the dots with her handkerchief.

“Please Lord, grant me the piety to accept the Holy Sacrament of Marriage,” she whispers aloud, even though there is no one to hear her. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, ask Him to grant me a man who will protect me and give me a devoted Christian family . . .”

But secretly she is thinking of how handsome her beloved will be, as kind in the face as Jesus, as straight-­backed as the priest, as tall as her father, and sweet-­smelling like a woman. Will he have a mustache like her Papà, thick and bushy? Will he have a beard like her grandfather, a swath of old tobacco masking his face and neck? Or will he have a mustache like her brother, two thin lines ending in points? She imagines the hair on his handsome face tickling her cheek. Her heart beats like a bird’s wings. She banishes these thoughts and pricks herself. Once in each fingertip, neat as a rosary. At the Cana wedding feast, where Jesus turned water into wine, the bride and groom had no appetite for blind passions—­they knew that God would hold them strictly accountable on Judgment Day.

Maria pricks herself at each wrist now that she has done her ten fingertips. She wipes the blood with her handkerchief again. She must keep the wedding sheet clean and white, like her soul, like her body, immaculate and new. But she is old. Twenty-­five years old and untouched by a husband. Her fingers are without thimbles. She has hands that can wring an animal’s neck. Arms to stir a pot of boiling polenta. She’s a good investment for any man, if only he can overlook her age.

She gazes out of the window. The eaves and sills are dripping; the world beyond is dripping as it thaws. Some of the trees are still under snow, stooped and blanketed. She hears a mule complaining. And then the church bells, clear and bold despite the distance. One continuous minute of tolling. Single notes. They are melancholy, not happy-­sounding like a baptism. Then there is a pause. Someone is dead. Then another minute of bells. If it stops now, it is a woman who has died, perhaps the old witch who lives like a lunatic in her nightdress. There is a pause. Then another minute of ringing. It’s a man who has died. Another dead man in the world. A man gets three minutes, and a woman gets two minutes, because a man is more important, because Adam was the first man, and Jesus was a man, and God is the Lord, and the disciples were men, and priests are men, and the Pope is a man.

Her father is making his journey up and down the valleys, picking his path against steep slopes of softening snow, risking avalanches, and wolves perhaps, who knows what dangers he will have to brave?

People wander but mountains stay put. And yet mountains are fickle—­a chasm can appear suddenly with a slip of the foot, a sunny sky lulls a hunter like a child to venture too far, a freezing fog blinds the world in moments, a sly air creeps into the lungs and becomes pneumonia.

Maria sews and sews. White blossoms in a wavy line. The linen is not the most expensive, but it’s good enough in quality, and tough—­it will be years before she has to darn or patch it. Her betrothed will admire her handiwork. He will stroke her embroidered flowers and then he will stroke her cheek like a flower. And they will hold each other as close as two walnut halves and children will eventually appear, with God’s help, because children and flowers make a house a home.

Fioi e fiori i fà la casa.

The border of her bedsheet is almost complete. It must be a sign. Just three more blossoms with curling stems and sprays of tiny buds in between. Satin stitch and chain stitch and stem stitch. All white. She feels sure that when she reaches the hem at last, her father will appear with her beloved. He’s been gone more than two days. She will hide behind the door, and she will catch a glimpse of her sweet-­faced, sweet-­smelling betrothed and he will recognize her from the old photograph.

She puts down her sewing and pinches her cheeks, runs her fingertips along her jaw, touches her full lips. What is it like to kiss a man? She almost let her cousin Duilio kiss her once, before he went to the seminary, before he became a soldier. She kisses her fingers and remembers her mortifications.

On Sundays and for sacraments, she still wears her dark brown dress, high-­collared and tight-­waisted—­she has taken good care of it. Her husband will recognize it as soon as he sees her, even though her dress was new in the photograph, crisp and undarned. Will he think well of the darning because it shows her thrift and skill? No, he’ll think her father isn’t rich enough to buy her a new dress in eight long years. She hates being poor. Hates it. But she won’t be married in November like a really poor girl, when the hard work of Summer and Autumn is done, and a girl is just one more mouth to feed through Winter. Na boca in più. If she marries near Easter, people will look up to her. How much can her father pay a man to marry her? It’s not enough that she is pretty and strong. She hates the war and the Spanish flu and the evacuation and her isolation for making her unmarried and past her prime.

The traveling photographer had lined them up in the schoolroom at Albarela, twelve bodies in front of a big curtain painted with misty columns and a floral frame. That was a sorry day. The first photograph of Maria’s life, and perhaps the last time they would all be alive together. The entire family dressed up as if for a wedding, but with fear in their bellies. The girls were ready to be sent to Piedmont—­if they’d stayed at home, they’d have been taken by the foreign soldiers to do with as they pleased.

For every Italian man or gun: four Austrian men and four Austrian guns. Everyone said that, doom in their voices.

For the photograph, a potted plant was placed between her father’s feet. And there was another plant, tall and strange—­a palm, the photographer said, from the Bible Lands. The emblem of martyrs. Did the photographer think they were martyrs? Did he pity them? Maria stared hard at his camera, silently vowing never to be pitied again.

Palm or no palm, her beloved will be able to see her upright modesty in the picture, her tiny bright medallion of the Virgin proud on the yoke of her dress, her regular features and steady gaze. No squint, no crossed eye, no blindness. He will surely see that.

And now, despite her years, she is still healthy, she has nice firm fat on her hips and bosom, her bones are straight and her hands are strong. He will see all that, because he’ll be looking for a long life with her, and thinking of his children with her. He’ll be looking for a woman who can do the work.

Maria can do the work. Everyone in the contrà says that.

How long did she live as a servant with the signori in Piedmont? She gave those rich people her best years. She learned to cook, and clean, and grow food. She already knew how to sew. She learned to protect her virtue, the signori taught her that. She learned to crave wealth, they taught her that too. When she and her sisters returned home after the War in Snow and Ice, there were no animals, no glass in the windows, not a sound. Just devastation. They thanked God for the American soldiers who gave them livestock to start all over again. And they thanked God for the lucky men in their family—­they’d survived.

But where is he, this man for her, who has survived the battles with the Austrians? The valleys have been officially declared a monument to war, and an ossuary like a lighthouse is being built on one of the peaks, but half of all men are dead, or else there wouldn’t be enough bones and teeth and skulls to fill it.

She must have a wedding this year or it will never happen.

You’ve got to get married or you’ll end up like that witch in a nightdress, Mama says whenever Maria is excitable or ungrateful.

La Delfina wanders from contrà to contrà, she belongs to nobody, she sings to the moon like a wild dog, when the light is so bright at night it’s like a cold blue day, and the shadows are sharp as granite, and the rocks glitter. Sometimes she hangs about the cesso in the daytime, muttering obscenities and blasphemies. Little Egidia won’t use the privy when la Delfina is around, but Maria is determined not to show any fear of her. Sometimes she gives her food. It’s charitable to do so. She leaves it at a safe distance, or she throws it. Secretly she is terrified of the madwoman’s curses. What if she has the power of a gypsy? It’s less dangerous if she sings, so Maria calls out through the wooden walls and asks for a song while her cacca drops down into the mountain earth.

And sometimes la Delfina cooperates.

L’uselin de la comare

L’è volà su le tete.

L’uselin sbatea le alete,

E un po’ più giù volea volare!

The godmother’s little bird

Flew onto her breasts.

The little bird beat its little wings,

It’s a bit further down he wanted to fly!

Maria sews and sews. She must be married this year or she will be like the matrons in church whose childlessness marks their faces with hollow sorrow, whose breasts hang empty, women who spray spit when they talk, and talk too much, and fuss, and complain, and find fault with everything. La dona senza fioi come ’na vegna morta. A woman without children is as useless as a dead vine.

Her father will save her. He will find her a war hero without wounds—­perhaps just the one dashing scar on his cheek or shoulder. She pictures his shoulder.

Now she has to stop sewing and prick her thumbs extra hard. The new blood is a ruby, two rubies, three rubies, four.

When she is married there will be rubies on the sheet that she has embroidered, because a virgin must bleed, but she doesn’t know how or why. She must ask the Madonna of the Mountains. She will find her some flowers and place them before her statue in its glass dome, and pray for answers.

Maria Vittoria knows that blood comes with pain, like the blood of Jesus all over His crucified flesh, tender and soft and pale as a woman’s. Maybe wedding blood is as terrible as the pain of childbirth, which is God’s punishment for Eve. There is nothing about a bloody bed in The Christian Bride.

She has only one blossom to go.

The mule outside is still complaining but there’s another animal braying further down the valley, on the track from Albarela. It’s her father’s mule, she knows the sound, and the chickens are hysterical, and the last heap of snow falls with a dead thud off the roof, and the air through the window is full of sparkles as she looks out and sees no one.

- About the author -

Elise Valmorbida is the author of the novels Matilde Waltzing, The TV President, and The Winding Stick, as well as The Book of Happy Endings. She is also a designer and an award-winning producer and script consultant. She grew up Italian in Australia, but now lives in London.

More from Elise Valmorbida

The Madonna of the Mountains

A Novel

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The Madonna of the Mountains

— Published by Spiegel & Grau —