I read A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. It is quite good, a can’t-put-down, I’m-still-thinking-about-it that follows a lesser-known part of World War II. It’s also pretty grim and includes some gruesome scenes. It’s not a light read, but it is well worth the effort.
It’s 1943. Mussolini has been defeated and Italy has broken with Germany and made peace with the Allies. Thousands of Jewish refugees struggle over the Alps, away from Eastern Europe toward what they believe will be a safe place to wait out the war. Instead, they discover that the war is still very much present in Italy with the Nazis’ arrival, the Resistance battling them, Jews forced to flee or go into hiding again and ordinary citizens simply trying to survive. The Nazi rule is harsh and unrelenting – anytime a German soldier is killed by a Resistance fighter, 20 (or more) citizens are killed in retaliation. Sweeps are enacted regularly searching for hidden Jews or Resistance fighters; any that are found are killed or deported (to death camps) as are those that hid or aided them. Food and fuel are scarce. And then the Allies begin bombing the tiny villages and towns in an effort to break the weakening German Army.
A Thread of Grace follows a variety of people living in this Italian valley including a priest, a Resistance leader, an Italian Jewish family, a German doctor, Eastern European Jews who have fled to Italy, an Italian soldier and several Catholic nuns. Each has suffered great losses and struggle to continue against impossible odds. There is despair and sorrow and anger, but there is also fellowship and kindness. The Italians, whether Jewish, Catholic or atheist, open their homes to the Jewish refugees without hesitation, often risking their own lives, hiding, feeding and clothing them with no expectation of repayment.
You get a real sense of what the war meant in this Italian valley – the desperation, the randomness, the cruelty. The kindness of strangers is breathtaking – Italian soldiers helping the refugees over the mountains by carrying their luggage or a tired child, nuns hiding orphan refugee children among their other charges, helping a sick German doctor, a deserter, even though he has caused thousands of deaths, and confusing and distracting soldiers at checkpoints to smuggle someone past. Although this is fiction, Russell spent several years researching this part of the Italian campaign. It has often been overlooked once the Allied invasion began and attention shifted to Normandy and France. In fact, the war continued in Italy, with a devastating toll, until May 1945.
I did have some trouble keeping the large cast of characters, hailing from various families and nationalities, straight but there is a list of the major players at the beginning of the book. This book is often difficult to read, but it is well worth the effort, an eye-opening look at both the worst and the best of humans.
Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month?