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Review: A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 2005. 442 pp. $17

It’s September 1943, and Italy has just surrendered to the Allies. Though that brings the war’s end one step closer, it puts in jeopardy thousands of Jews from all over Europe who’ve somehow eluded the executioners and migrated to southern France, where Italian troops have protected them. Since the surrender has destroyed that protection, most of the fugitives attempt to flee, and, for tens of thousands, northwest Italy becomes the next stage of their clandestine existence.

Sant’Andrea, a town in Liguria, scrambles to hide those who seek shelter there, a task that couldn’t be more dangerous. Not only have the Germans invaded Italy, they’ve sent crack troops to hold the line, the Waffen SS, who’ve terrorized much of Europe. Anyone who aids or harbors “rebels,” “terrorists,” or Jews will be executed, and the neighboring area will suffer reprisals.

The Memoriale della Shoah in the Milan train station of Jews deported during the Holocaust (2014 photo courtesy fcarbonara via Wikimedia Commons)

To recount the story further would be pointless and misleading, for it’s simply one “no — and furthermore” after another, a big, sprawling narrative from many perspectives, exploring as many themes. Like Italy, A Thread of Grace is warm, dramatic, good company, passionate, and a bumpy, sometimes uneven, ride, not that I care. Among other issues, Russell sifts through shades of good versus those of evil, demonstrating how telling them apart is always difficult. Her narrative discourses on killing, and whether it’s ever justifiable; what true religious faith demands; how to live, not merely exist, when you must hide; and what courage is.

But above all, Russell’s characters propel this novel. My favorite is Renzo Leoni, former pilot who fought in Ethiopia and lives in liquor because of it. He’s Jewish, yet he hides in plain sight, adopting different personae, testament to his bravery, quick thinking, and ingenuity. Sometimes he’s a German-speaking businessman who chats up the sister of the local Gestapo chief to obtain information. Other times, he’s a tradesman or a priest, whichever guise seems safest at the moment to let him visit resistance contacts. He’s also a cantankerous, exceptionally witty son who has legendary fights with his mother, dialogue that is often howlingly funny. Perhaps Renzo’s greatest gift is his ability to befriend anyone, even a Waffen SS doctor who seeks an exit from the war so he can die in relative peace from TB.

Other notables include Suora Marta, a nun so imperious that a priest of her acquaintance jokes to himself that she outranks the pope. There’s Iacopo, the rabbi for Sant’Andrea, who’s so busy helping everyone else, he neglects his own family. There’s another priest, missing part of his leg from the First World War, who makes sure Jews are welcome and cared for, though he slyly hopes to bring one or two of the ebrei into the Church.

A Thread of Grace is the fourth of Russell’s novels I’ve reviewed, and this one bears her trademark grasp of historical detail. All descriptions show activity, even of a supposedly static landscape, which livens the narrative and makes admirable storytelling:

Wrung out by five minutes’ effort fueled by a diet of poor-quality starch, spring chard, and not much else, Suora Corniglia leans against a terrace wall to muster strength and catch her breath. Beside her, tiny brown lizards dart into crevices between stones. Fig trees bake in the basil-scented warmth above meticulously attended vineyards that crisscross the hillside. The Mediterranean is a stripe of silver between gray-green foothills, and when the wind shifts, the astringency of pine from nearby mountains is replaced by the barest hint of salt and seaweed.

If you’re like me, you may wonder, here and there, whether no Italian Christian ever turned in a Jew. But in her afterword, the author insists her depiction is true to life, having found no instances of any such betrayals in her six years of research. (That may be true of northwest Italy, but elsewhere presents a mixed picture.) Regardless, I appreciate her portrayal of Jewish characters, who seem genuine, down to the refusal to eat a biscuit during Passover, and their outlook on the world, schooled by hard experience. Once or twice, they may break character in small ways, but A Thread of Grace sets the bar very high for Holocaust fiction, both in that regard, and others.

One way in which it does concerns how the author hews closely to reality. The novel encompasses almost two years of war, and if the Italian populace does its best to protect those in hiding, the Germans do their best to find the fugitives, kill them, and take revenge. Murder and torture mark this story, not just kindness and generosity.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.