Monday, April 28, 2008

Book Review: A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell.
Ballantine, 2005. ISBN 0-449-00413-9

Mary Doria Russell has an unusual resume. In addition to being the author of three award-winning books (plus one just published,) she holds a Ph.D in biological anthropology. Nor are the books, as one might assume, erudite scientific tomes, but rather two fine science fiction novels, a gripping tale about the Italian Resistance during World War II, and a new one about a 1921 diplomatic conference in Cairo. Rumor has it she's now at work on one that takes place in Dodge City in the 1870s. It rather leaves one breathless to think about an author careening from one far-flung subject to another, but in this case it seems to be working out. Everything I've read by her has been well worth the price of the book.

The one I'm reviewing here is the third book, A Thread of Grace, about the Italian Resistance. I've done a fair amount of reading about the various resistance movements during the Second World War in Europe, especially in Denmark and France, but never about what happened in Italy. Apparently not many people have, according to an interview Russell gave to Roz Kaveney for Amazon/UK, so perhaps there hasn't been much written. For example, I wasn't aware that Italy had the highest rate of Jewish survivors in all of Europe, (an astonishing 87 percent) despite an intense effort on the part of the Nazi occupiers, beginning in September of 1943, to hunt down and deport them. Italy had a reputation as a place that was safe for Jews, so many of them fled there, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people took them in and helped them despite very real danger to themselves. Indeed, at times I had to wonder if the author were looking back at the situation through idealistic lenses precisely because the characters were all so selfless and willing to take such grave risks.

The book mainly takes place in a fictional valley in northwestern Italy. As it begins, we follow some Belgian Jews who are struggling over the Alps with the help of Italian soldiers leaving France ahead of the Nazis. The priest in one small village tells the peasants that they must help the "Hebrews" coming over the mountains. The Hebrews, he says, are educated, dignified, and live in cities. Thus the villagers are somewhat surprised when a straggle of shabby, thin, poor and exhausted people appear in place of the regal sages they've been expecting, but no matter. They take the Hebrews in without question, and feed, clothe, nurse and house them. When the
Jews have doubts as to whether they can be trusted, especially in view of the generous bribes the Nazis offer for information, they are told that Italians are always on the side of anyone being harassed by the government. As the story unfolds, we learn that many priests, sisters and lay Catholics helped hide and shelter Jews, sometimes at great cost, which is refreshing to learn, given their often-tepid response in other parts of Europe.

True to life, even in the midst of terrible hardship and almost unrelenting misery, there are moments of levity and light. In one hilarious example, a British radioman parachutes into the valley near the end of the war to assist the partisans. Unfortunately he falls right into a deep snowdrift and can't extricate himself. The partisans find him some hours later, hypothermic and delirious, near death. When he wakes up, weak and dizzy but warm, he's in a remote hut,
surrounded by a few women and children and some fearsome-looking men with a motley collection of stolen weapons, but they're amici, they say, friends. He doesn't speak Italian:

"There's a phrase book in my kit," he tells them, pointing with one finger. Reaching around the little girls, he
mimes opening a book with his palms. "Book? An Italian-English phrase book?" The child hurries to get the
phrase book, watching wide-eyed as Simon flips through it. "There," Simon says, and slowly sounds out
transliteration. "Sahno key eye-tar-low. I am here to help you." He hands the book over, pointing at the phrase.
The leader's brows rise. Judging from the resulting laughter, he says something along the lines of,
"Well thank God for that! We're safe now that this bedraggled little limey is on the scene."

Yet in true-to-life contrast there are also sudden, terrible reversals and tragic mistakes - an old woman who thinks she's safe in a nursing home summarily executed, resistance heroes mistakenly shot or hung as collaborators in the chaos after the Nazis withdraw, children of a survivor misunderstanding their mother's refusal to talk about the war. Russell is a great story teller who paints a vivid and compelling picture of the Nazi occupation of Italy, and that is what ultimately makes the altruism of the Italian people believable. This is a work of fiction about a true story, the story of the courageous people of northern Italy who really did save many thousands of Jews from the Nazis. It is a story that deserves much wider exposure, and this book is a well-written and engaging start.

Highly recommended.
Today I'm grateful for: new leaves, good friends, lots of connections, my community, funny movies.
Holding in prayer today: MK, PC, JK, JE, MB and others recovering from surgeries and illnesses; NC who needs fewer major responsibilities and more calm; a frustrating situation; peace for BT; the Sisters of St. Joseph in Sweden.

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