In the fall of 1948, Ernest Hemingway made his first extended visit to Italy in thirty years. His reacquaintance with Venice, a city he loved, provided the inspiration for Across the River and into the Trees, the story of Richard Cantwell, a war-ravaged American colonel stationed in Italy at the close of the Second World War, and his love for a young Italian countess. A poignant, bittersweet homage to love that overpowers reason, to the resilience of the human spirit, and to the worldweary beauty and majesty of Venice, Across the River and into the Trees stands as Hemingway's statement of defiance in response to the great dehumanizing atrocities of the Second World War. Hemingway's last full-length novel published in his lifetime, it moved John O'Hara in The New York Times Book Review to call him "the most important author since Shakespeare."
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December 12, 1996
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Excerpt from Across the River and Into the Trees by Ernest Hemingway
They started two hours before daylight, and at first, it was not necessary to break the ice across the canal as other boats had gone on ahead. In each boat, in the darkness, so you could not see, but only hear him, the poler stood in the stern, with his long oar. The shooter sat on a shooting stool fastened to the top of a box that contained his lunch and shells, and the shooter's two, or more, guns were propped against the load of wooden decoys. Somewhere, in each boat, there was a sack with one or two live mallard hens, or a hen and a drake, and in each boat there was a dog who shifted and shivered uneasily at the sound of the wings of the ducks that passed overhead in the darkness.
Four of the boats went on up the main canal toward the big lagoon to the north. A fifth boat had already turned off into a side canal. Now, the sixth boat turned south into a shallow lagoon, and there was no broken water.
It was all ice, new-frozen during the sudden, windless cold of the night. It was rubbery and bending against the thrust of the boatman's oar. Then it would break as sharply as a pane of glass, but the boat made little forward progress.
"Give me an oar," the shooter in the sixth boat said. He stood up and braced himself carefully. He could hear the ducks passing in the darkness, and feel the restless lurching of the dog. To the north he heard the sound of breaking ice from the other boats.
"Be careful," the poler in the stern said. "Don't tip the boat over."
"I am a boatman, too," the shooter said.
He took the long oar the boatman handed him and reversed it so he could hold it by the blade. Holding the blade he reached forward and punched the handle through the ice. He felt the firm bottom of the shallow lagoon, put his weight on the top of the wide oar-blade, and holding with both hands and, first pulling, then shoving, until the pole-hold was well to the stern, he drove the boat ahead to break the ice. The ice broke like sheets of plate glass as the boat drove into it, and onto it, and astern the boatman shoved them ahead into the broken passage.