It is not a surprise that Robert Crichton's 1966 bestseller The Secret of Santa Vittoria was met with enormous critical and public success. By slightly embellishing a true story, Crichton developed a novel that pleased almost all readers. In the midst of the political and social unrest of the 1960s, Crichton returned the reader to a time and place where despite being at war, life remained fairly simple. No doubt this appealed to the slightly older generations who remembered World War II with a nostalgic perspective. The Secret of Santa Vittoria used humor to approach a tender subject and struck a chord with a generation that wanted to remember the feelings of hope and patriotism before one of the most dynamic decades in history.
However, at the same time the novel held the values that younger generations were all about: freedom, community, and love. Crichton expanded his audience by combining several genres to formulate his tale, in doing so creating a novel that dominated the top of the bestseller lists in 1966.
Although Robert Crichton was already somewhat established as a writer of biographies, he broached his first fictional attempt with cautious enthusiasm. Very careful in his research, he traveled to Italy himself to learn about the life he would later illustrate. Partly based on a true story, it can be said that the novel is a work of historical fiction. Crichton's writing approach intrigues the reader, prefacing the novel by claiming the story came from a manuscript left on his doorstep. The reader cannot possibly tell without further research if Crichton is telling the truth, and frankly it is more likely that the reader does not care. One would want to believe that out of the hell and destruction of World War II, this little story, like the characters within it, could survive.
The story is as simple as the life it describes, although it contains moments so dramatic they seem to not come from the same source. It is set in the small Italian village of Santa Vittoria during the Germany's WWII occupation of Italy. Crichton wonderfully lays out the scene and brings the simplicity of village life and the necessity of its harvest together in the early pages of the novel: "Santa Vittoria is grapevines; it is wine. That is all there is. Without the wine, as they say here, even God Himself could not invent a reason for Santa Vittoria" (Crichton 8). Immediately, we are drawn in to this town that knows, or cares, nothing of the world outside its own vineyards.
The mission is simple as well: the German captain (Von Prum) is to find and confiscate the town's enormous cache of wine. The town, led by the 'idiot' mayor Bombolini, invents a plan to hide the wine from the Germans. What transpires subsequently is an examination of how much one group of people can come together, and how much they will risk to save their livelihood. As many bestsellers do, the plan comes to a successful, although not perfect, conclusion. Once again good triumphs over evil, and in this case the evil is one of the most destructive political and military forces in human history.
The book was hugely successful, and not just because Crichton could tell a good story. Simon & Schuster was ready to market this book as much as possible, and word of mouth to and by the reviewers sold this book before it was even released. Critics loved its honesty. The New York Times Book Review called it a "mélange of allegory and symbolism" noting the underlying implications of what was being written (NYTBR Aug. 28, 1966). Choice Books for College Libraries said that it was "a fascinating portrayal of Italians who remain true to their own culture by a theme that is relevant to our own culture" (Choice Jan.1967). Clearly, as much as people gushed about the 'picaresque' novel that Crichton created, many seemed to be aware of its relevance to the American sentiments of the 1960s.
America was in the process of attempting to let go of the fifties ideal, a world where everyone was alike and conformed to the same philosophy. As children of the depression, the adults of the fifties were bombarded with a new world of materialism and growth. The sixties' disruption of this mold came in ideas like freedom for all people, regardless of gender or color. Interestingly enough, The Secret of Santa Vittoria contains aspects of both eras, which undoubtedly helped propel it to the top of the bestseller lists.
In discussing the war, the novel found an audience of people for some of which the psychological wounds were still healing. The fifties allowed people to gloss over and not really talk about what happened; instead pushing America into the Korean War without giving time to what many Americans had just been through. It was as the Vietnam War loomed ahead that people examined the value of each human life and what every casualty of war stood for. Still, this novel brought back the sentiments of World War II without shoving them in the readers' face. Crichton instead uses a subtle approach laced with humor to describe the destruction in terms of one town's struggle. This is not an original technique; it is also used by Joseph Heller in his 1961 masterpiece Catch-22, where "he satires the horrors of war and the power of modern society" (www.levity.com). However, Crichton can take this attitude because he himself fought in World War II. If he had not, the reader would be less likely to accept his humor with as much favorable reception. In one passage, Crichton overshadows the German officer's affinity for manipulation of the town's spokesman: "I'll try not to underestimate him. I try to remind myself that even clowns can possess a kind of cunning, and even wisdom, although I must admit in this case it is hard to see" (Crichton 228). Crichton almost has the ability to make Von Prum affable, however at some point the opposition must become obvious. It is in the descriptions of torture inflicted on the townspeople in an attempt to uncover the secret that the subtlety begins to disappear: "After that they did things with the blowtorch on Copa's body that cannot be written down. After the torch they cooled him with water. He was still conscious and they put the funnel in his mouth so that it went far down his throat and they bent his neck back and brought him to the point of drowning" (Crichton 323). Able to laugh throughout most the book, the reader is forced to recognize the reality of war and the suffering that comes with it.
However, it is this type of text that sides the reader with the villagers, and creates the David and Goliath tale that so many bestsellers have come to emulate. Irving Stone's 1961 bestseller The Agony and the Ecstasy brought together the concept of one man's triumph over evil (in this case the backbreaking task of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) and the beauty and historical attraction to Italy. Although this novel was not critically acclaimed, it had the characteristic of impossible success that people get drawn into. The Secret of Santa Vittoria astonishes the reader with passages that describe the entire town forming a human chain and passing over a million bottles of wine into a mountainous hiding place, all in the span of two days. Often it is these tall, but seemingly possible tales that inspire people to read in the first place. The fact that this inspiration comes in the midst of such terrible tragedy increases its uplifting value.
The novel not only touched something inside veterans of World War II, but it also reached the young peacemakers of America. The idealistic belief in one man's worth just tacked onto the prevailing ideas of equality that the 1960s presented. With an idea set forth by Kennedy when he said "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," this novel tapped into what many Americans were beginning to hope was true: that one person can truly make a difference, not to mention a whole community when it works together. Organizations like the Peace Corps capitalized on this argument and still exist today. Even when one looks at the non-fiction bestseller lists for the decade, the lasting impression of the Kennedy-era is obvious. At least six novels can be found there discussing the late president and his ideals. Today America is still spellbound from 'Camelot;' the memories being revisited with last year's death of John Kennedy Jr.
War novels have always been popular; there is something surrounding the drama and romanticism of conflict that makes for great reading. Other writers would capitalize on the success of Crichton's foray into the WWII genre. In 1971, the Herman Wouk epic novel The Winds of War was hugely successful and provided a much more graphic insight into the events of the crisis in Europe. Even before Crichton's success there is an uncountable number of war novels, including such books as Mila 18 by Leon Uris and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.
The sixties were also the decade where the 'spy' novel became a part of pop culture. The works of Ian Fleming and John Le Carre explored and benefited from the American obsession with the Cold War. Not to say that The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a Cold War novel, but the storyline of one town withholding information from the Nazis is enough to resemble a tale of intrigue and espionage.
Crichton's critical success was based upon his ability to create rich and dynamic characters, and he does so by using the basic formula found in any novel depicting a small town atmosphere. Other bestsellers of the twentieth century like Catherine Marshall's Christy and Grace Metalious' Peyton Place capitalized on this mentality. The microscopic exploration of a single community makes the small town a sort of microcosm within, but almost separate from, a greater environment. The novel is full of stock characters that pop up no matter which decade the story involves. There is Bombolini, the town drunk, Roberto Abruzzi, the American outsider who befriends the townspeople, and Tufa and Caterina, the young star-crossed lovers. Almost every conversation that is had could quite possibly be heard in small-town America, particularly the conversations that involve small-town pride. As universal as some of the themes in this book are, Crichton allows the town to turn inward on itself and create a world of its own.
However, Crichton adapts his version of village life by forming scenarios where these typical characters can break the stereotypes of their personality and actually surprise the reader. Bombolini, despite being the town drunk, gets elected to the position of mayor and organizes the hiding of the wine. Roberto becomes the outsider who eventually saves the people by suggesting the plan in the first place. Caterina sleeps with Captain Von Prum in order to save Tufa's life, but she never loses her authority. In these miscalculations of what is expected lies much of the humor, but it is also what makes this novel different from small town stories such as Pollyanna where no one really breaks free from stereotypical behavior. Probably the most interesting character shift comes at the end of the novel, where a martyr is made from the character that nobody in the novel likes. Babbaluche sees his forthcoming execution (a sacrifice that Von Prum required for the town not revealing their secret) as one final joke; he calls it a joke because he is dying anyway. His family plays out this dramatic emotional scene when he is chosen to die, despite the fact that they hate him. Even in the harshest of moments in the book, Crichton looks to humor as an emotional relief.
Two years after its reign on the bestseller list, The Secret of Santa Vittoria was also made into a successful film. Nominated for two Oscars, the film won the Golden Globe for Best Picture in 1970. This adaptation of the novel actually played into what some critics did not like about it: that it was too visual and read almost like a screenplay in the first place (New Yorker Dec.10, 1966). True, the book is filled with all sorts of eye-candy images like the human chain winding up the side of the mountain. However, it is the good versus evil plot that Hollywood can never resist. And there are still films specifically like this one that are popular today. Roberto Bengini received enormous acclaim for his account of one man's attempt at making the Holocaust seem like a game to his son in his film Life is Beautiful. That motion picture, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, capitalized on the same notion of finding hope amongst chaos and despair, and one man's ability to successfully do so. These are the stories many people want to hear, they want to be uplifted and told that as meaningless as life at times may feel, they can still inspire themselves and others to do great things.
Unfortunately, Crichton never again was really able to live up to the expectations following his first novel and achieve commercial success. By using a formula involving several different genres and combining it with a story that reached out to not only a hopeful generation but also one that lived through the situation it dramatized, Crichton created a tale that captured America's attention. Crichton's "feel-good" theme of courage and hope is as timeless as the narrative and undoubtedly will appear in best-selling novels for years to come.
Balliett, Whitney. New Yorker. December 10, 1966.
Choice Books for the College Library. January 1967.
Collogan, Lauren. Bestsellers Database for Irving Stone's The Agony and the Ecstasy. February 1999.
Crichton, Robert. The Secret of Santa Vittoria. Simon & Schuster: New York. 1967.
Dodd, Katie. Bestsellers Database entry for Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind.
Golden, Kate. Bestsellers Database entry for Herman Wouk's The Winds of War.
Hudson, Kate. Bestsellers Database entry for Mila 18, by Leon Uris. February 2000.
Internet Reference on Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. www.levity.com/courduroy/heller.htm
Maloney, Joseph. Bestsellers Database entry for You Only Live Twice by Ian Fleming.
Martin, Edward. Bestsellers Database entry for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John Le Carre.
McDowell, David. The New York Times Book Review. August 28, 1966.
The Internet Movie Database: http://us.imdb.com