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Review: A Thread of Grace

Reading A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell taught me about an aspect of World War II I previously knew very little, if anything, about … the Italian resistance to Nazi Germany and the assistance they offered to not only Italian Jews but also those fleeing from occupied Austria, Belgium, France, Poland.

Russell sets her historical novel in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding mountainous countryside. The novel spans from 1943 to 1945. The Allies are closing in, and the Germans are making a last push, knowing defeat is drawing near, to destroy as many Jewish lives as possible. Most Italians, at this point, are anti-fascist as well as opposing Hitler, some have embraced communism, and many are willing to put themselves at risk to hide Jewish refugees.

Russell introduces a cast of characters that I quickly grew to love. The star of the show is Renzo Leoni, a handsome, fearless Italian Jew who was injured in the Italo-Abyssinian colonial war and now works for the Italian resistance. Renzo, who drowns his guilt over atrocities committed in Abyssinia in alcoholic over-indulgence, has a gift for impersonation and winning people and is able to insinuate himself into the Nazi ranks under several different guises. His mother Lidia, as fearless and sharp of wit as her son, also aids the resistance effort.

Rabbi Iacopo Soncini and his wife Mirella are also primary characters, as is their young son Angelo. Iacopo is willing to risk his life to protect his flock, despite his wife’s pleas to flee with her and their children to the countryside. Instead, Iacopo remains in Porto Sant’Andrea while Mirella becomes a major player in the resistance effort while seeking safety in the mountains. Angelo, sent into hiding at a Catholic school; provides a child’s view of the atrocities of war and it is heartbreaking.

Claudette Blum and her father Alberto were separated from her mother and two young brothers in France, after fleeing Nazi occupied Belgium. Although the fate of mother and sons is never addressed directly, we can only assume that the train they boarded was headed, not to Nice as they assumed, but sadly, to a Nazi death camp. Seeking safety, father and daughter follow an Italian regiment over the Alps and end up in the same village as Renzo Leoni’s band of resistance militia and Mirella Soncini. Claudette falls in love with an Italian soldier who befriended her during her trek through the Alps, and she eventually joins the resistance movement.

Another memorable character is the deserter Nazi medical officer suffering from tuberculosis who estimates that his signature authorized the death of more than 90,000 people throughout the war. In the beginning of the novel, Werner Schramm is seeking forgiveness. Instead, he finds redemption, as he has the opportunity to use his medical training to save the lives of wounded resistance fighters. Also unforgettable are two Catholic priests and two nuns who defy German edicts and risk their own lives to help the Jewish people living and hiding in Porto Sant’Andrea and the surrounding villages.

This was neither a quick nor easy novel to read, because of the difficulty of the subject matter, the large and varied cast of characters (the author wisely provides a glossary of characters which was extremely helpful – all those Italian names!) and the care with which Russell treated her historical subject matter. But it was well worth the time and effort. In the end it was rewarding, first of all, on an intellectual level, because I learned about a little discussed aspect of World War II. I held my breath throughout the story, fearing for the Jews and their Italian protectors, wondering who would be picked off by the hellish brutality of war, and hoping against hope that these beloved characters would somehow survive despite the odds.

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San Francisco Chronicle
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