Winter at Monte Cassino is a story told by Lieutenant Patricia Hampton, a member of the U.S. Army Photographic Section and a uniquely educated classical historian, who is brought over by her godfather General Mark Clark to create a visual record of his advance north to liberate Rome, Italy in late 1943.
It records the conflict that arises between them, as Patricia comes to realize that though she sees her job as building a faithful photographic history of his progress, he views it only as a means to produce the publicity he needs to get command of the Allied Invasion of France.
In a campaign that goes wrong from the outset, Patricia's experience quickly becomes far less about memorializing any military success, than of wondering whether she ever really knew her godfather for the desperate man he has somehow become. Faced with the increasing likelihood of him authorizing the bombing of Monte Cassino Abbey which blocks his intended line of advance, Patricia is soonforced to decide whether to believe him when he says it is occupied by Germans, or accept the words of the enemy general who assures everyone it is not.
Having discovered the truth for herself, she must then decide whether to passively watch the impending tragedy, or use her camera to somehow prevent it.
Part coming of age story, this is also an adventure tale, as Patricia survives an assortment of ordeals in her pursuit of the truth. But out of the dreadful tragedy comes at least some redemption, as Patricia seizes her own one chance of being a light in the darkness by trying to rescue as many of the innocent civilians inside the Abbey as she can. And afterwards as she watches that Abbey burn, just like her we are all forced to reconsider our definitions of who some of the heroes in this war really were.
WINTER AT MONTE CASSINO is perfectly paced, the characters are well-developed, and the story is steeped in truth. Blair uses his impressive command of the English language well in penning the successes and tragedies of this war.
There is so much I want to say about this novel but don’t want to give away too much or include any spoilers so I’m finding it a bit difficult in writing this particular review.
The most indefensible Allied act was the entire land war in Europe with the utter deliberate destruction of the Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino in 1944. The Abbey was the most cherished icon of Catholicism outside of the Vatican. Originally called “Cassinum” it was renamed “Monte Cassino” and dedicated to John the Baptist. It was built around five cloistered courtyards by the late 1930’s and grew to more than twice the length of Buckingham Palace!
I think of the most important questions asked in this novel was simply “why”? The other most asked question was how many Monks and civilians were in the Abbey when it was needlessly destroyed? One Italian citizen was reported to have said that as many as twenty-five-hundred refugees were there and after, only the remains of a mere one-hundred were found. No one has ever come up with an acceptable explanation as to why destroying this beautiful architectural and revered piece of history was ever destroyed in the first place. To think this most massive structure was reduced to mere chunks of debris in a matter of three days is truly a crime.
Patricia Hampton who studied architecture and Roman history was also a photographer who was taken to the European front during World War II by her Godfather, General Mark Clark. She was there to help substantiate his claims as he marched his troops to liberate Rome.
The Germans had invaded Poland and Britain and France declared war on them. Patricia had returned to Monte Cassino from the States for a first anniversary celebratory mass for her parents after they were killed in a car wreck. This, of course, took place before the destruction of Monte Cassino.
WINTER AT MONTE CASSINO is full of emotion and substance with a solid storyline giving the reader something to really hold onto.
One quote I liked from Patricia’s memoir was something her father had said to her once: “You live in a foreign country not to recreate it in your image but to understand it for what it is, and perhaps to appreciate that there are other ways of doing things than your own country’s ways”. Isn’t that the truth? Don’t we sometimes go somewhere and try to make it “home” rather than appreciate what is offered to us point blank.
I thought a lot about this story once I reached the end and couldn’t decide whether to start it over again right then, or let the massive amount of information percolate in my brain for a while first. I’ve decided to percolate for a wee bit but will definitely re-read this beautifully and impeccably written novel again. History is an amazing educator and we learn a great deal about people and the times in which they lived. I for one am happy to be alive in this day and age but had the opportunity to walk with the people of Italy through Blair’s fine writing. This is one book that will stay with me a long time and one I will read again and again and will be touting its merits to all I see.
This is simply one of those books that you CANNOT miss. I guarantee you will be drawn in from the beginning and won't stop turning the pages until the very end.
Thank you Mr. Blair for providing me with some of the best reading I’ve done in a while and I wish you much success with WINTER AT MONTE CASSINO!