Damn it, Mary Doria Russell made me cry again Culture class is once again the culprit, although this time it s Nazi anti Semitism versus the Italian resistance instead of Jesuits and scientists versus aliens on Alpha Centauri A Thread of Grace begins with Italy s surrender to the Allies, and from the Jewish perspective of the book, this is one of history s great ironies It s a relief that Italy has surrendered to be sure, this is a turning point in the war Jews in the Italian occupied territories were safe from the Nazis, but now the Italian army is going home Many Jewish families choose to accompany it over the mountains, but when they arrive in Italy, they find the Germans are there too So much for the war being over.Irony is recurrent in A Thread of Grace, often as the companion of macabre humour Most of this book is obvious and predictable It s easy to guess that Claudette and Santino will fall in love it s obvious that Stefania is the missing Steffi when Renzo and his elderly mother team up to free Iacopo, is it really a surprise when she doesn t make it out alive Tragedy meets the main characters at every turn, and the attrition rate is incredibly high, even for a war novel But this irony and predictability work in tandem to ramp up the pathos It s called foreshadowing We know bad things will happen, because that s a given for any story, doubly so for WWII novels But we start having an inkling of what specific fates await these characters, all of our characters As the story draws toward a close, these foreshadowed fates tighten their grasp around our hearts, refusing to let go Claudette, the stalwart widow Renzo, embracing irony to the end Osvaldo, a flawed priest with so much courage.These are all characters worth our time and empathy I ll admit, sometimes they seemed to blend together This might be a result of every character having about seven different names and endearments now I understand why we get a dramatis personae But it s worth the effort to distinguish between the characters and understand their individual sorrows.Claudette is, as I mentioned before, a widow Well, she starts as a precocious fourteen year old, marries young, and becomes a widow The war takes from her all her family, beginning with her mother though she doesn t acknowledge it for a long time , then her father, and finally her newfound husband Before he leaves her to turn himself in for the crime of killing several Nazis who were gang raping a young woman, he and Claudette conceive a child Lest you accuse MDR of any false sentimentality, however, I ll disabuse you right now the child is prematurely born and dies soon after This is not a book about miracles it is a book about humility in the face of great catastrophe.Renzo is one of my favourite characters He is the trickster of the group, always ready with a confidence game or deception to trip up the Germans In particular, he loves disguises, to the point of establishing an alternative Aryan identity of Ugo Messner This leads him to an unfortunate and ironic end at the hands of his fellow countrymen, who recognize him only as Ugo and not Renzo when the time comes to punish the Germans who don t manage to retreat But it s not all fun and games for Renzo There is a deeper sadness about him, a melancholy made evident by his attachment to alcohol He is literally and deliberately drinking himself to death over his guilt for bombing a Red Cross hospital in Abyssinia The action continues to haunt him as he helps coordinate the resistance Renzo is a man for whom happiness comes only in the momentary joy that accompanies children playing long lasting contentment and peace, he knows, is forever beyond his reach.Schramm is less likable, in that he is a former Nazi and readily confesses to sharing some of their ideology It s not clear how much of that ideology he has renounced certainly he struggles with long held views on the mercifulness of euthanizing the mentally ill and weak His most memorable scene is a confrontation with Mirella First he reassures her that malnutrition was not the cause of her second child s Down s syndrome Then he goes on, unfortunately, to mention that the child s accidental death was a blessing, for no one with Down s syndrome could live a fulfilling life, and children with such conditions just drive families apart Mirella fumes at such an assertion Schramm doesn t mean to upset her or to proselytize Nazism He s just internalized, through his medical training, these beliefs, to the point that they are present and on the tip of his tongue.I could go on at length about other characters, but the above three were my favourites It s a shame that MDR did not extend their complexity and depth to her antagonists The Germans representing the occupying forces are a joke Von Thadden is the intelligent but oblivious general who moves for mysterious reasons and ends up dead because of it Reinecke is the competent but unimaginative aide And Arthur Huppenkothen AH is the caricature of an uptight Gestapo who takes his loyalty to the F hrer and the Vaterland entirely too seriously Even the tone in which these characters are written is bumbling and supercilious This is something that could work well in another type of WWII novel, but it really undermines the emotional chord that MDR maintains throughout the rest of the book I just can t take von Thadden or Huppenkothen seriously, even if they are villains who order reprisals against civilians.Likewise, the Italians and Jews we meet are reluctant heroes or neutral to the partisan cause Just once I would have liked to see a collaborator, someone who sided with the Germans out of fascist solidarity Battista comes close, being a fascist and somewhat temperamental, but it s clear he s closer in allegiance to the partisans than to the Nazis This is a peculiar omission in an otherwise well rounded story.The plot, you ll notice, I ve largely avoided discussing, because it s not at all remarkable It s just the minutiae of these characters struggles to survive under German occupation and repel the Germans from Italy There are a few memorable scenes, such as Schramm s aforementioned confrontation with Mirella and the subsequent scare with the undetonated bomb For the most part, however, they are generic misfortunes This seems to be an artifact of how MDR wrote the characters to stand for all refugees and all partisans A Thread of Grace is an unapologetic microcosm for the humanity and succour the Italians extended to the Jews I just wish the characters were reified, less archetypal.Yet I found myself tearing up at the end of the book It s not sappy, and it isn t even very sentimental MDR does her best to pull out all the stops the protagonists lose family, friends, and fortune This unrelenting commitment to the worst possible scenario makes the book work, preserves the eponymous thread of grace as an act of compassion, limited in its abilities rather than a panacea It s not going to work out all right, and pretending otherwise would be insulting A Thread of Grace is moving precisely because it acknowledges this part of the tragedy of World War II It is a reminder that when big gestures fail and fixing the problem isn t possible, sometimes you just have to do what you can Sometimes it won t be enough But once in a while, you make a difference. Audiobook performed by Cassandra Campbell Russell s third novel leaves space and the future, and instead looks back on WW2 and the Italian citizens who saved the lives of thousands of Jews not only their neighbors but refugees coming from other countries It opens in September 1943, with fourteen year old Claudette Blum and her father They ve already fled Belgium and are in Paris, when they need to move once again This time they will cross the Alps on foot, led by an Italian soldier Eventually they are taken in by a farm family and come to know the villagers in the area As the war progresses over the next few years we meet a large cast of characters that includes a German doctor who regrets his past, an Italian rabbi and his family, a priest, a British paratrooper, and a charismatic Italian resistance leader What a story Based on true incidents, Russell s tale draws the reader into the lives of these many people She gives us examples of true courage, from the fighters actively engaged in battle, to the grandmothers who carried messages or the Catholic nuns who sheltered Jewish children in large orphanages I fell in love with these characters Russell doesn t sugarcoat the sacrifices and dangers they faced, nor does she make them saints They squabble, succumb to temptations, and waver in their determination They are also courageous and fiercely resistant to the evils of the Nazis Out manned and out gunned by the Germans, this army of citizens nevertheless shows discipline and ingenuity when fighting Their huge advantage is their intimate knowledge of the terrain and their fierce loyalty to one another This is a war story, so I knew there would be death and destruction Even though I expected this, some of these scenes brought me to tears Russell tempers the sadness and horror with moments of great tenderness and even humor I was lucky that I chose to listen to this audiobook while on a long road trip I finished the 17 hours of listening in two day s driving Cassandra Campbell does a superb job performing the audiobook She is a gifted voice artist and really brought the story and these characters to life. Set In Italy During The Dramatic Finale Of World War II, This New Novel Is The First In Seven Years By The Bestselling Author Of The Sparrow And Children Of God It Is September And Fourteen Year Old Claudette Blum Is Learning Italian With A Suitcase In Her Hand She And Her Father Are Among The Thousands Of Jewish Refugees Scrambling Over The Alps Toward Italy, Where They Hope To Be Safe At Last, Now That The Italians Have Broken With Germany And Made A Separate Peace With The Allies The Blums Will Soon Discover That Italy Is Anything But Peaceful, As It Becomes Overnight An Open Battleground Among The Nazis, The Allies, Resistance Fighters, Jews In Hiding, And Ordinary Italian Civilians Trying To SurviveMary Doria Russell Sets Her First Historical Novel Against This Dramatic Background, Tracing The Lives Of A Handful Of Fascinating Characters Through Them, She Tells The Little Known But True Story Of The Network Of Italian Citizens Who Saved The Lives Of Forty Three Thousand Jews During The War S Final Phase The Result Of Five Years Of Meticulous Research, A Thread Of Grace Is An Ambitious, Engrossing Novel Of Ideas, History, And Marvelous Characters That Will Please Russell S Many Fans And Earn Her Even From The Hardcover Edition Once again, I have an outstanding work of historical fiction to thank for teaching me about a time, events, places and people I knew virtually nothing about that I didn t realize I wanted to know anything about Mary Doria Russell, with her uncanny ability to wring gorgeous stories out of dry facts, brings wartime Italy to my living room In the fall of 1943, Italy surrenders to the Allies and thousands of Jewish refugees from across the diaspora pour into the country, just as German occupation forces advance A Thread of Grace show us what was won, and what was lost, by those who sought and offered shelter Russell fictionalizes a town and a cast of characters, but all is wholly believable from this gifted researcher and anthropologist The threads are many, and the cast of characters is large, but at the center is WWI hero, cynic, alcoholic, Renzo Leoni, a Jew who assumes several identities as he infiltrates the Nazi occupiers, supports the Resistance, and hides the refugees But what s striking about this cast is their sheer ordinariness These are shopkeepers, housewives, rabbis, grandmothers, foot soldiers, teenagers There is nothing in their backgrounds that would make them inherently courageous and noble in fact, they risk their very security and stability what little there is in the face of German occupation to aid strangers The author set herself a daunting task to bring dense historical fact to life, to convey the complexities of faith and resistance to faith, and to provide backgrounds and personalities to a multiplicity of characters At times, the narrative sinks under the weight of history, and I found myself frequently flipping to the front list of characters to remember who was doing what, where, but balance is found in the vivid and fascinating people whose threads are woven together in a tragic comic tapestry Most compelling to me were the intersections of faith and ethnicity to watch Italian Jews interact with others of their faith, but not of their nationality to witness the compassion and confusion of Catholics, to understand Italy as a newly united nation of tribes and dialects, trying to sort out its future as a struggling whole.My favorite actors are rarely those who take top billing at the box office They are the character actors who disappear into their roles, making us forget that we are watching fiction unfold on the screen That s how I feel when I read Mary Doria Russell s novels she conjures these human beings who lift from the page and assume a three dimensional, flesh and blood grip on my imagination, inhabiting the space that craves connection with a world beyond my reach. I read this book during the holiday season but find myself thinking about various scenes at odd moments I ll be brushing my teeth, and suddenly, I ll be on the Ligurian coast of Italy while a German deserter confesses to the local priest that he is responsible for over 91,000 deaths I ll be on the edge of sleep, and as I close my eyes I ll see a toddler learning to walk when suddenly the bombs start to drop I ll be driving and will be visited by one of the kind visions of an Italian soldier wooing a Jewish escapee as they climb the Alps.Doria Russell s characters are so well developed and her research put to such good use that I feel like I have a much better understanding of the European front during WWII Did you know that the Italians managed to hide over 43,000 Jews during the war What was different about the Italians This novel will give you a few answers.One of the best novels I read in a long while, I would have to recommend this to all of my reader friends Do yourself a favor and read A Thread of Grace when you get the chance You ll thank me. A fantastic story of Italian resistance during WWII, including the incredibly brave efforts of Italian Catholics to save Jews Beautifully written Emotional Well researched.The story begins when Italy surrenders to the Allies, which is followed immediately by a brutal German occupation, which in turn triggers further Allied ground attacks and bombing Russell brilliantly presents the grinding unrelenting pressure caused by this series of events, including the fanatical pursuit of Jews by the Germans, even to the detriment of their rapidly deteriorating war aims.The characters are extraordinary and memorable Italian priests and nuns, Italian Jews, refugee Jews, Nazis, partisan fighters, all caught up in an enterprise they know is ultimately useless The Allies will win, but Hitler refuses to give up, and many must therefore die for no purpose.But, as the Italian rabbi says towards the end of the story, No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there s always a thread of grace Much of Russell s historical basis for the story comes from Benevolence and Betrayal Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism another fine read. No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there s always a thread of grace Mary Doria Russell A Thread of Grace is an important and informative historical novel by Mary Doria Russell that tells a true story of the courage and sacrifice of ordinary Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty three thousand Jews between 1943 and 1945 in the last phase of WW2 The Axis forces have begun to crumble Italy has surrendered and signed the armistice For uprooted Jews living in Italian occupied southern France, a new death knell has just sounded With the retreat of the Italian forces, the Germans are marching in The only escape is to flee over the Alps to Italy.A brigadier, the first of innumerable kind Italians, supplies Claudette Blum age 14 and her father, Albert, with Italian passports to aid their flight Santino Cicala, an Italian soldier, makes it his personal objective to help the Blums cross safely to Italy It is heartbreaking to see hordes of frightened families, many with young children, risk their lives scaling impossible mountain terrains in a bid to save themselves The old, too feeble to flee Sainte Gisele, are predictably killed The sweet moment arrives when the Blums cross into Italy and Santino whispers, Welcome to my home The locals witness emotional reunions People weep with relief, boast of unexpected prowess in mountaineering, laugh giddily when they tell of terrifying encounters with pursuing Germans, who turned out to be squirrels or chamois The hotels go out of their way to welcome, feed and accommodate the tsunami of Jewish fugitives Reading these episodes where goodness abounds is uplifting and renders the horrible plight of the Jews a little bearable However, the relief is short lived view spoiler Italy is not the haven the weary fugitives have hoped it would be It is a war zone where the Allies are fighting the Nazis and Fascists the latter are fighting the Resistance armies the Jews in hiding and the Italian civilians are all struggling to survive In this chaotic battleground are several wonderful though not flawless individuals who sacrifice their lives to save the Jews and their fellow countrymen Werner Schramm a drunken former Waffen SS Officer deserter doctor , Renzo Leoni a retired Italian combat pilot , Don Osvaldo Tomitz Italian priest , Soncini the rabbi and Mirella his wife , several nuns and many peasant farmers With few exceptions, these heroes perish in the cause of saving the Jews in their midst, and it is well nigh impossible to keep a dry eye Light shines into dark places in this novel Brutality is met with love and compassion Where there is guilt, there is redemption Schramm, a tuberculosis infected Nazi doctor drunk with guilt and remorse was refused absolution Nevertheless, he uses his medical skills to heal the injured, and becomes a true friend of the Jews hide spoiler This was very interesting at times, but most of the time I just read in a state of confusion Way too many characters and way too many plotlines This book needed some careful editing, and perhaps it could have been 2 stories or the historical parts written a bit clearly I can t quite put my finger on what it was that didn t work, but having read many WWII books, this one just didn t cut it for me.There is no Status entry for RIP but that is what this fine book is now doing It met its demise at the hands of an overflowing pot of beans It all started when my mother in law advised me to soak beans overnight with a bit of baking soda When I forgot the overnight bit, I thought I d be clever and just boil them for an hour with plenty of baking soda Having slept through elementary science class, I had no idea that I was creating a volcanic eruption like none ever seen in a classroom, and off I went to do some laundry My dog s frantic barking and a mysterious odor drew me to the kitchen where there it was A flow of bean lava coming out of the pot, onto my counters, down the side of my cabinets and into my shoes, taking with it this book The bean mush was thick, hot and bubbly and wound up everywhere So ended A Thread of Grace. I simply loved this moving rendering of life in northern Italy during the long period of Nazi occupation after Mussolini stepped down It is the story of two families of Jewish refugees who hide out in the mountains with the support of Italian peasants and poorly equipped partisan fighters of diverse origins The tale is well researched and very satisfying in revealing the strengths of a community and the ability of the human heart to thrive under great challenges.At the beginning of the narrative, thousands of Jewish residents and refugees in coastal towns near the border with France make the decision to cross the mountains to the north and hide out in the rural country of the piedmont portion of Italy The book dwells on the life of a 15 year old Belgian refugee girl, Claudette Blum, travelling with her middle class father Hardship and losses cannot quell her spirit, nor keep her from falling in love with a former Italian soldier, Santino, who helps them cross the mountains Both find a pathway to serve the resistance network Other key characters include a former Italian Jewish airman, an Italian Rabbi, a priest, a nun, and a deserter German doctor The story brings to life their experiences and moral choices, along with their successes and failures in endurance and sacrifice The prose is largely invisible and transported me very vividly into the rural environment and social discourse of characters I could root for.As you can see from the box on the map, the site of the story is the region between Genoa and Nice the towns are fictional At the start in the Fall of 1943, the Allied invasion of Italy was bogged down south of Rome, and from then until the end of the war they only got as far as the middle of Italy the Gothic Line on the map During this nearly two years, the Nazis were free to try to carry out the Final Solution for the Jews of northern Italy, which the former Fascist government had been reticent to accede to However, the resistance curtailed that effort, with the consequence that nearly 45,000 Jews were saved and only about 5,000 were nabbed and sent to the death camps Through ambushes and sorties, the partisan fighters inflicted about 20,000 casualties on the German forces, thus making a valuable contribution to the war effort by diverting German troops from defense against the Normandy invasion The SS used their usual tricks of terrorist intimidation They pushed for a policy that for every soldier killed, 20 residents from the closest village would be slaughtered in response, and anyone harboring a rebel or a Jew would be shot Fortunately, few regular German soldiers carried out such policies, but when such atrocities were enacted, it took community courage and resolve to continue resisting At one point the Rabbi wonders I keep asking myself why was it so different here Why did Italians help when so many others turn away He recalls to a nun a saying in Hebrew No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there s always a thread of grace From the four books of hers I ve read, Russell seems to me a gifted and versatile writer who puts her training in anthropology to good use in her skilled approaches to elucidating the essence of our humanity in the face of challenges. Some of the best scenes in literature 1 The Idiot mock execution2 Macbeth Act 5 Scene 5 Macbeth s world is crashing aroundhim when he hears of his wife s death He remarks, laconically, Sheshould have died hereafter, and then delivers what might be the most perfect lines in literature To morrow, and to morrow, and to morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death Out, out, brief candle Life s but a walking shadow, a poor player, That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.Nowhere in literature is despair and futility communicated better.3 Invisible Man Liberty Paints Factory or battle royal4 Flannery O Connor too many to list5 Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie telling Joe Starks, Whenyou pull down yo britches, you look lak de change uhlife The few examples above come from Tier One literature While this sounds hierarchical, I guess I do view books in general categories For example, though Mary Doria Russell is an excellent writer, she doesn t make my Tier One list And, I m no elitist, but I d be willing to bet most of us have some sort of invisible line that separates truly great literature from the rest Then, there is schlocky literature and those books like Glenn Beck s recent foray into literature and I d rather check out Hell for a few days or rip my face off than read The Overton Window that are beneath contempt.However, in Tier Two literature very good but not great , Russell s scene between Werner Schramm, an SS deserter, and Father Osvaldo Tomitz, an Italian priest, is absolutely unforgettable Schramm has been dogging Osvaldo for some time, hoping to have him hear his confession If you consider this excerpt a spoiler, don t read it Osvaldo wants nothing to do with Schramm, but Schramm persists and starts by asking Osvaldo a number of questions concerning faith, and then begins his confession A priest s office is to instruct the faithful Schramm shouts Osvaldo is disgusted but resigns himself to hearing the confession Bless me, Father, for I have sinned, he says when he can speak again I have murdered 91,867 people Osvaldo laughs You re joking, this laugh says You can t be serious Ninety one thousand, he repeats Eight hundred And sixty seven Yes The number is absurd, but Schramm does not laugh Schramm tries to makes excuses, to clarify the situation, but Osvaldo cannot comprehend it is beyond belief Osvaldo looks at Schramm, at the goat, at the diamond studded sea in the distance Mind racing, he tries to imagine what he can possibly say to thisthis demon His mouth opens No words emerge He lifts his hands, drops them, and begins to walk over Wait Schramm calls You must What is my penance Osvaldo turns and stares Mein Gott, Schramm, what did you expect Rosaries Bending suddenly, leaning hard on hands that clutch his knees, Osvaldo chokes back vomit Trembling, he lifts his eyes Shoot yourself I ve eliminated both parts of this scene and its ending It has to be read in its entirety.The book s title is perfect, for grace does thread its way through this book Though the plight of the Italian resistance, Jewish refugees and many others in this book prompt situations that are wrenching, the book is uplifting as well.A poignant and memorable read.