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A Thread of Grace Paperback – Dec 6 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Busy, noisy and heartfelt, this sprawling novel by Russell—a striking departure from her previous two acclaimed SF thrillers, The Sparrow and Children of God—chronicles the Italian resistance to the Germans during the last two years of WWII. Three cultures mingle uneasily in Porto Sant'Andrea on the Ligurian coast of northwest Italy—the Italian Jews of the village, headed by the chief rabbi Iacopo Soncini; the Italian Catholics, like Sant'Andrea's priest Don Osvaldo Tomitz, who befriend and shelter the Jews; and the occupying Germans invited by Mussolini's crumbling regime. In the last camp is the drunken, tubercular Nazi deserter, Doktor Schramm, a broken man who confesses to Don Osvaldo that while working in state hospitals and Auschwitz, he was responsible for murdering 91,867 people. Meanwhile, Jewish refugees in southern France, including Albert Blum and his teenage daughter, Claudette, are fleeing across the Alps to Italy, hoping to find sanctuary there. Russell pursues numerous narrative threads, including the Blums' perilous flight over the mountains; Italian Jew Renzo Leoni's personal coming to terms with his participation in the Dolo hospital bombing during the Abyssinian campaign in 1935; the dangerous frenzy of the Italian partisans; and the bloody-mindedness of German officers resolved to carry out Hitler's murderous racial policy despite mounting evidence of its futility. The action moves swiftly, with impressive authority, jostling dialogue, vibrant personalities and meticulous, unexpected historical detail. The intensity and intimacy of Russell's storytelling, her sharp character writing and fierce sense of humor bring fresh immediacy to this riveting WWII saga.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Italian citizens saved more than 43,000 Jews during the last 20 months of World War II. Russell has transmuted this little-known history into an expansive, well-researched, and compelling novel. As the story opens, the mountainous region of northwest Italy has been relatively untouched by WWII, and even Jews have been safe. When Italy breaks with Germany in 1943 and pulls out of southern France, thousands of Jewish refugees cross the mountains in search of safety. But the German occupation of Italy poses a new threat. Even with the list that's provided, it can be hard to keep track of all the characters--Catholics and Jews, priests and rabbis, Germans and Italians, old and young, Nazis and Resistance fighters. But Russell is good at presenting the human story while never using the war merely as a backdrop for personal dramas. In fact, to mirror the arbitrary nature of survival during wartime, she has said that she flipped a coin to determine who among her characters would live and who would die. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
I'm not into science fiction, so I'll probably not read her two first books, but I've already ordered (and am looking forward to reading) her fourth book, about the Middle East in the early '20's.
And, even though there were not too many characters in "Thread" left alive at the end of the book, I'd be interested if she wrote a sequel.
That's the mark of a good novelist. She leaves the reader wanting to always know "more" about her story and people.
This is a story of the German occupation of Northern Italy. Roman Catholic priests and nuns saved many Jews from the Germans who were intent on finding them and sending them to the concentration camps. Even though the Germans were fighting and being hit by air attacks daily they were still diligent about rounding up the Jews in the area.
Italians hid and helped the Jews. The Italian resistance fought the Germans. This novel is a historical fiction depicting the actions of the people in Northern Italy.
The characters in this book are wonderful. Renzo is a rogue who seamlessly flits between the Germans, the resistance and the Jews. Claudette is the tragic character caught up in an awful war. Schramm is the uptight scumbag German obeying his orders and fighting his conscience afterwords.
I loved this book and learning about all about this area during the war. So many people helped others at great peril to themselves.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
A THREAD OF GRACE is part of that tragic narrative, but a more obscure one. Set in the ports and valleys of northwestern Italy (Aosta, Piemonte, Liguria) during the last two years of World War II, it tells the story of Jews, 43,000 of them --- both native-born Italians (of which there were many; the Jewish community in Rome is the oldest in Europe) and refugees from eastern Europe --- whose lives were saved by ordinary citizens. Russell, who calls herself "a Jew by choice and an Italian by heritage" (she is a convert, though she doesn't give details), seems the ideal writer to bring this piece of history to life, and she does it beautifully in an absorbing, generously proportioned novel.
This is the kind of book you need to read with a cheat sheet because there are so many personalities and interwoven story lines (Russell considerately provides a cast of characters; I could have used some maps, too). There are the Italian Jews, particularly the chief rabbi, Iacopo Soncini, and his wife, Mirella; and Renzo Leoni, a hardened former pilot who has as many identities as he has scars, and his mother, Lidia. There are the Italian Catholics: priests, nuns, and ordinary farmers and peasants who help shield the Jews --- and a big, innocent Calabrian infantryman who marries one. There is the Jewish refugee contingent, especially a Belgian teenager named Claudette Blum --- families who, as the story opens in 1943, are making their way across the Maritime Alps from southeastern France to Italy, which has just surrendered to the Allies. Unfortunately, Italy only seems safer: Mussolini's ouster sets up two years of bitter fighting among Germans, Allies, and partisans. A British Special Ops signalman parachutes in to gather information on the ground. Nazi officers try vainly but brutally to stabilize the area for Hitler. And a renegade German doctor, Werner Schramm, who presided over the vilest concentration camp experiments, is slowly dying of guilt, drink, and tuberculosis.
The book is, I admit, a bit heavy on "types" familiar from World War II movies: the selfless religious, the noble peasant, the apparent cynic who is a secret hero, and so forth. Indeed, there is an old-fashioned flavor to the whole novel --- the way Italian or German or Hebrew words are thrown in to indicate which language is being spoken; the stately pace; the headings that tell you precisely where and when the action is taking place. A THREAD OF GRACE doesn't reinvent the war novel as THE ENGLISH PATIENT did, with its spare language and mysterious shifts between myth and reality, past and present. But the author's emotional commitment to her characters is such that they soon grow on you, transcending cliché and laying claim to your heart.
Russell was originally a paleoanthropologist --- a scientist who studies human fossils --- and the training shows in her meticulous portrait of the region and its people. Although her previous books, THE SPARROW and its sequel, CHILDREN OF GOD, are science fiction, the methodology was similar: She invented an entire alien culture, building it up in brilliant, believable detail. (These earlier works, by the way, are fascinating, suspenseful, and altogether wonderful; grab them even if you don't ordinarily like the genre). There is a scientist's mind at work here as well as a novelist's imagination.
There is also a challenging ethical complexity to A THREAD OF GRACE. Russell does not preach or sentimentalize (which is easy to do in the face of the Italians' courage and self-sacrifice), and she doesn't glorify war; rather, she underscores its moral ambiguities. Werner Schramm, for example, is a walking, talking human monster, but he began as an idealist. Renzo Leoni is guilty of killing civilians, too, though on a lesser scale: In 1935, during the Italian-Abyssinian war, his squadron famously bombed a civilian hospital, and he is tortured by the memory. When local partisans show no mercy to captured Nazi officers, Renzo knows the massacre is wrong, but unstoppable. "I've sworn off ethics," he says afterward. "What's the point?" A THREAD OF GRACE, like THE SPARROW and CHILDREN OF GOD, is powerfully (though not didactically) imbued with a plea for cultural and religious understanding --- to respect what is radically different in other societies and faiths, while embracing what we have in common.
The evocative title comes from a remark by Rabbi Soncini at the book's end. "There's a saying in Hebrew," he says. " 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' " Mary Doria Russell's novel is a bit like a great textile --- rich and broad and intricately figured --- and in its design there is a glint of something like hope. These days, we could use it.
--- Reviewed by Kathy Weissman
Thread of Grace is well written but very busy with crossing storylines. You may indeed need a list to keep things straight. Ms Russell pays great attention to detail in both her description of the physical location of the story (NW Italy) and in the characters she includes in the story. It is this detail that may overwhelm the casual reader.
The premise of the story, that there is a safe haven in Italy for Jews as they try to hide from their ultimate slaughter by the Nazi's is a compelling one. And it is true. The characters, a Jewish Rabbi, a Catholic Priest, the Italians of the region, and the Germans (collectively) face the moral and ethical dilemma all humans face in war. Russell does an excellect job dealing with the whole war/morality issue without preaching one way or the other.
Truly a worthwhile book. Get it and read it. I suspect we'll hear from Russell again.
Italian Jews and foreign refugees must all go into hiding, many assisted by Italian Catholics, and a few Italian Jews who hide in plain sight. We also meet many of the German officers who control the small, fictionalized area of Italy in which the story takes place.
Just like "The Sparrow" and "Children of God", however, Ms. Russell's characters are wonderfully crafted, and the story is told in a remarkably beautiful manner. Faith, philosophy, humor, warmth, despair, and humanity are all wrapped up in one moving, poignant package.
The three prime groups in the village have a tentative peaceful co-existence, but the influx of newcomers places that in jeopardy. The Italian Jews want to welcome their mostly religious kin with open arms. Father Tomitz sets the tone for his followers by providing shelter for the Jews. While Doktor Shramm hides with drink from his murdering almost 100,000 people of which he can account for seemingly everyone, the German leaders blindly follow orders to carry out the Final Solution. Into this volatile situation come the allies.
A THREAD OF GRACE is a fabulous complex historical tale (not sci fi as Mary Doria Russell's' two previous works are) that brings alive a dark era through seemingly real people. The story line is fast-paced with multiple subplots that add to the depth and the feel of 1943 Italy. With plenty of tidbits and multifaceted perspectives, the amazing part remains the ensemble cast regardless of national origin or religion which all seem so genuine; for instance the plight of a French Jew with his daughter struggling to cross the Alps to Italy is breathtaking. World War II readers will want to read this slice of an odious era where lights of courageous kindness existed.
I also believe this book could be an excellent novel for a high school history, religion, or English class, despite some foul language (perfectly appropriate for the context) and violence. It brings home the atrocities of the German Final Solution much more directly than a dry history text book, inspires diligence in keeping similar things from happening again, and encourages respect and love across religious/cultural/racial divides.
I listened to the audio version and found the reader excellent and engaging.