A House in the Mountains

by Caroline Moorehead, published 2019

This book chronicles the Partisan effort in Piedmont. Much of it takes place during the chaotic civil war after Rome fell to the Allies. Mussolini had established a base of operations in Salò. Germans were attempting to hold the Gothic line and exploit the valuable industrial resources of the North. The Allies had established a government in the South as the ousted Italian monarchs vied to power. While Partisans with divergent postwar political aims fought for an Italy free of fascism after 20 years of oppression.

Caroline Moorehead attempts to create order out of this chaos by focusing on the efforts of four Partisan women: Ada, Frida, Silvia, and Bianca. These efforts involved the coordination of close friends, sympathizers, and unfamiliar freedom fighters. Moorehead clearly loves to research, and loves her research, so she is not afraid to delve into the details - which is essentially the problem with the book.

The book names dozens and dozens of individuals of varying importance while also helping the reader understand the macro-forces at play. One moment we are exploring the terror faced by a friend of Ada’s after he is captured by the Germans. Another moment we are describing the attitudes of British command, the disposition of a British commander, and how it compares to the American approach.

The book really wants to be about the incredible bonds formed between these four women when meeting calamity. They are depicted as effective leaders who were essentially living up to their potential. In essence, the Partisan effort had little time for mindless patriarchy - they needed all the capable hands they could find.

But the book wanders like the German occupiers through an unfamiliar Alpine valley.

These Alpine valleys play a big role in the Partisan resistance. As a resident of Turin, Italy, it was what I found most illustrative. I have spent time hiking through two nearby valleys: the main route to France directly west through Avinglana, Susa, and Bardonecchia and another valley northwest around Martassina.

The landscape is beautiful and rugged. But the thought of building a resistance in these mountains is superhuman. Crossing valleys in the dead of winter to deliver vital communications or supplies in wartime seems impossible. All while hungry and uncertain of who you can trust should the unexpected occur (which was often).

The book is forced to address these mountainous landscapes. And the inner lives of these four women. Partially through the lives of their friends and family. As they all forge new alliances with new allies. As they navigate a civil war. As they bicker with the half-committed Allied forces that are fighting a world war; the world war that frames the backdrop of German occupation and atrocities. As opportunistic capitalists, communists, and monarchists vie for power and dreams of a more fair world without the constraints of patriarchy enter into the women’s minds. It’s a lot to cover and Moorehead ultimately does not meet the challenge.