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A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell

A Thread of Grace (2005)

by Mary Doria Russell

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1,943835,824 (4)304
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 8, 1943, 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 survive. Mary 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 more.… (more)
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It is fall of 1943, and Jewish refugees are fleeing occupied France, into northern Italy, although this axis country just surrendered and the Nazis are moving in. Thanks to the incredible kindness and daring of a network of Italian citizens, they are able to shelter these refugees, despite incredible odds. The story focuses on several different characters, on all sides, giving a
vivid picture of this dangerous period.

MDR has delivered again. She is six for six, for me. Here, she has directed her skillful sights on a little known chapter of WWII history, with her bold, writing style, uncanny characterization, and her usual meticulous dive into the research involved. It took her seven years to write this magnificent novel. ( )
1 vote msf59 | May 15, 2020 |
We think of our fiction collection as divided in two sections. One is smaller and this is the TBR, or To Be Read part - those are books we have acquired but have not picked up to read for various reasons. The much larger area holds books we have already read but know we want to read again someday - the TBRA (To Be Read Again) part. Mary Doria Russell’s books are in this larger section, and I selected this book of hers to read because I knew I had liked it a great deal and wanted to revisit it.

This historical fiction about the Nazi occupation of Italy reflects meticulous research into what the Italian people endured during World War II. The story focuses not only on the plight of the Jews, but on the many non-Jewish Italians who risked their lives to help protect them. As one rabbi in the story explained, “There’s a saying in Hebrew. No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.”

One priest had a more specific explanation for the actions he took to help Jews. He encountered a 13-year-old refugee who had nothing but a stamp album, with three hundred stamps from all over the world. When the priest asked how he got them all, the boy explained “They’re from letters [of denial] my father received from embassies where we were trying to emigrate….” The priest asked himself, “Can I abandon that boy, when the whole world has rejected him?”

The casualties of the war extended beyond the physical deaths and injuries that affected so many. One character mused at the end of the story: “Immense, intractable, incomprehensible, that conflict remains the pivot point of two centuries, the event that defines before and after.” He observed that “the poison still seeps down, contaminating generations So much evil. So much destruction….”

Many of the heroic characters you get to know in this story do not survive. But you won’t soon forget them. Ironically, or perhaps, realistically, it is the Nazis who by and large make it out of this story relatively unscathed. And what of their motivations for evil? The author takes a stab at speculating, via the thoughts of the one Nazi among her characters who is repentant, Werner Schramm. First Schramm acknowledges how easy it was to transform persons into objects, to categorize and then dispose of them. He then admitted:

“We were afraid. We were all afraid. There wasn’t enough of anything, and if there isn’t enough, you’re afraid someone will take the little you have. They’ll hurt you, steal from you, and laugh at your weakness and stupidity afterward. That’s what everyone believed. We were all locked away in our separate fears, and then the Führer came out of his prison with a key. He would turn our selfish, despicable fear into a kind of glorious selflessness if we obeyed him, if we dedicated our lives to the Reich. If our blood was pure.”

Schramm also agreed that part of the Nazi movement’s appeal was that it promised adherents, “You’re part of something big, and new, and powerful! You’re better than you were alone.” [Make Germany great again…]

While Schramm was the only Nazi who speculated about his own guilt, the fighters against the Nazis wondered about personal responsibility much more. They considered many of the victims of the war to be innocent. Renzo Leoni, the tortured hero of the book, had bombed a hospital in the Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-1937), and couldn’t get past it. He understood the Nazis killed many more people than he ever had, but thought "when the murder of forty-three people no longer matters, civilization is extinct."

What was most striking to me about this book was the portrayal of the fate of so many civilians, whether raped by drunk soldiers, or shot for looking at passing Nazis the wrong way, or burned alive in a locked building for reprisals against something with which they had nothing to do, or even killed by Allies attempting to help. So many deaths, so many victims, and so much of it aleatory - a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One can only be grateful for the thread of grace that helped at least some to survive, albeit scarred for life.

Evaluation: You won’t be apt to forget this story soon, which is a good thing. Every new generation should be aware of history that preceded it, in the hope that just once, it won’t be repeated. Russell's story emphasizes the importance of pulling out the skeins of truth from the web of propaganda, and resisting the call to hurt or abandon others in order to elevate oneself or one's ethnic group. Morality and grace transcend artificial boundaries, and without those qualities, as Renzo Leoni lamented, civilization is extinct. This book was definitely worth a second reading! ( )
  nbmars | Feb 12, 2020 |
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell, is historical fiction set in Italy during World War II. It's about Italian Catholics and Jews who were part of the Italian Resistance and who hid Jews both from Italy and elsewhere. A list of characters at the front of the book includes 45 people (one of which goes by four names in the book), which was too many characters for me to track. I had purchased my copy at a used book sale, and the previous reader had torn out this list of characters and used it as a bookmark - I can understand why. It probably didn't help that I read most of this book right around the time my mother died - I was pretty tired and distracted. While I learned a lot from this book, reading about so many deaths was depressing, and I'm not sure I would read it again. ( )
  riofriotex | Jan 23, 2020 |
A Thread of Grace was a fascinating read for me because of the time period it covers. I knew almost nothing about Italy during World War 2 when southern Italy fought with the allies and northern Italy fought with Germany. Italy from Rome up was governed by a puppet government with Mussolini as a figure head, but with Germany actually in charge. Southern Italy was under allied control and their forces were pushing north. This novel looks at the resistance in Northern Italy, specifically how the fighters risked their lives to help Jews fleeing the Nazis.

It took me a while to get into Russell's characters, but once I did I found them all interesting and a few fascinating. Even during the most barbarous of times, people still act foolish, fall in love, behave with strength or with terrible weaknesses that leave them overwhelmed with guilt. There were some sections where I felt the author lost the story and instead was teaching the readers, but most of the time the plot captured me, especially in the second half.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and would like to learn more about Italy during World War 2. ( )
  SteveLindahl | Nov 15, 2019 |
The characters in this complicated and powerful story will remain in my memory for a long time. Set in the northern countryside in Italy during WWII, this is the story of the "common and everyday" Italians who hid many Jews and the story of the resistance movement which changed these ordinary people into heroes, saints, or sinners. I admit I had some difficulty with the first several chapters of the book due to the complexity of the names and places. I'm not a WWII history buff so have little background); however, it wasn't long until these complicated names became familiar faces in my mind. The author does a beautiful job of making characters come alive; it's easy to envision the drunken German doctor, the overworked and overwhelmed rabbi's wife, the young Jewish daughter attempting to take care of her father while never quite understanding why they are leaving. The evolution of that young woman into a partisan herself is only one thread of the story.

The scenes of brutality are hard to read, but the scenes of tenderness set in the midst of that brutality bring tears. This juxtaposition seems to be one of Russell's best strengths. Two examples come to mind. Young Claudette gives birth too soon, her husband of only a few days already killed. Duno, once a rash, immature neighbor filled with bravado, tenderly tells her the baby is "beautiful" and stays at her bedside. Later in the novel when Father Osvaldo Tomiz is horribly tortured and near death, it is Werner Schramm, a Nazi doctor who has deserted, who bluffs his way into the prison to give the final rites and perform one more killing.

The ending of this book is just like the war; there are no nice clean tight solutions. Rather there is a memory of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who lived through or died either fighting for what they believed in or died as the result of others not even sure why they are fighting. This book is not an easy read. My one complaint is the abundance of German and Italian words and phrases that I was usually able to figure out, but not always (sometimes the author assumes the reader is smart), but reading "Thread of Grace" is certainly well worth the effort and immensely satisfying. ( )
  maryreinert | Sep 13, 2019 |
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Alla mia famiglia, with thanks to Susa and Tomek, who made me reach for more.
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A simple answer to a simple question.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen year old Claudette Blum and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to find safety now that the Italians have broken from Germany and made a seperate peace with the Allies. The Blums will son discover that Italy is anthing but peaceful, as it quickly becomes an open battleground for the Nazis, the Allies, Resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive. Tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters - a charismatic Italian Resistance leader, a priest, an Italian rabbi's family, a disillusioned German doctor - Mary Doria Russell tells the little-known story of the vast underground effort by Italian citizens who saved the lives of 43,000 Jews during the final phase of World War II. A "Thread of Grace" puts a human face on history.
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