A Thread of Grace

by Mary Doria Russell

Reviewed by Susan Gillmor

An extraordinary cast of characters people the pages of A Thread of Grace. The setting is a small wedge of northwest Italy nestled on the coast west of the Alps bordering Vichy France during World War II. We follow a band of Jewish refugees from all parts of a besieged Europe who are now fleeing France for the imagined safety on the other side of those Alps. Their guides and champions are a ragtag troop of Italian soldiers whose own position is now imperiled. It is 1943; Mussolini has fallen and surrendered his country to Hitler’s Nazis. Italy has managed thus far to protect its Jewish citizens from seizure and resettlement to an extent unheard of in the rest of Axis Europe. But now that German soldiers are overrunning their homeland, the Italian Jews of the town of Porto Sant’Andrea are in grave danger of falling victim to the machinery of the Final Solution.

Russell weaves an intricate tapestry of humanity in her rich characterizations—from Renzo Leoni, the reckless Jewish resistance fighter who brazenly masquerades as a priest and a rich German merchant, to Claudette Blum, a young German Jew who loses her entire family and comes of age by casting off innocence and joining the resistance fighters. Father Tomitz, a stalwart Catholic priest, and his parishioners spread their stubborn, protective silence around their Jewish neighbors. Doktor Schramm, a deserting Nazi medical doctor guilty of crimes against humanity, dedicates himself to saving whatever lives can now be salvaged. Unlikely and altogether flawed heroes cross paths with the Gestapo's cold determination to eradicate an entire people.

Russell’s strength is her ability to spin threads of historical fact into an elegant narrative of human drama, portraying the brutality of hate and genocide alongside the love of a new mother and the blossoming of young love. I came away from A Thread of Grace stunned by its traumatic truths and healed by an inherent "thread of grace" and its gift of hope. (2005, 448 pages)

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Other novels set in World War II Italy:

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992), about a nurse who fears falling in love and her patient, a nameless burn victim with a tragic love in his past, who are taking shelter in a bombed Italian villa near the end of World War II. More info

Tuscan Rose by Belinda Alexandra (2010), about a woman raised in a Florence convent who leaves to become a governess during the rise of Mussolini. More info

Lambrusco by Ellen Cooney (2008), about an Italian opera singer searching for her son, a member of the Resistance, after the Germans invade Italy in 1943. More info

Nonfiction about Italian Jews during World War II:

The Jews in Mussolini's Italy: From Equality to Persecution by Michele Sarfatti (2006). More info

All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust, 1941-1943 by Jonathan Steinberg (1990). More info

The Italians and the Holocaust: Persecution, Rescue, and Survival by Susan Zuccotti (1987). More info

Online Resources:

Italy page at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website

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