A Thread of Grace
by Mary Doria Russell
Published by Random House
448 pages, 2005
The Grace in All of Us
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
I was waiting for this novel, and I didn't know it. After reading The Sparrow and Children of God, I was looking forward to whatever Mary Doria Russell wrote.
I had no idea, however, that A Thread Of Grace was a story about a topic in which I'm passionately interested. This novel shows Russell's strengths as a compelling storyteller. It's set in Italy during the later days of World War II. The action takes place after Mussolini has fallen and the war in Europe is ending. It is the story, primarily, of Italian Jews. It's also the story of the people who helped save them from genocide.
For several years, I've spent time reading about what are commonly known as "Righteous Gentiles." While as an admitted weenie who has trouble reading most history concerning the Holocaust, or the Shoah, as it's known to Judaism, I've read several histories of individuals who saved lives. I've read about Varian Fry, one of the only Americans to be honored as a "Righteous Gentile" and I've read about Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. I've read about the Partisans of Vilna, and the townsfolk who gave aid. I've read several collections of oral histories, told by survivors who explain who saved their lives and how. After wondering what it was that enthralled me so, I realized I was and am fascinated by stories of courage. Not big stories about climbing mountains, little stories about a village that risked everything to save the lives of friends. Or strangers.
That's the story in A Thread Of Grace. In flowing, at times wonderfully evocative prose, Russell tells the story of everyday people, people you get to know and understand. She examines how it is that some Jews couldn't see what was happening, about how they trusted that they would survive because, after all they might be Jewish, but they were also French, or Italian weren't they? They'd fought for their country during the Great War, they were citizens. It's something that might baffle those of us who grew up after World War II, but here, you hear their voices. Russell presents the nuns and priests who often risked their own lives to save people with whom they shared little or nothing. And villagers up in remote areas who took in a father and daughter simply because it was the right thing to do.
In those histories I read, each and every individual downplayed -- in fact, refused to accept -- that he or she was a hero. "It had to be done," they said or "anyone would have done what I did." The truth is of course, that millions did not. So what made these people different? Mary Doria Russell helps explain why. Or at least shows us why; the explanations are, if you will, often hidden in the human heart. What makes one person risk something? What sets us apart from each other and when does that matter?
There are some larger-than-life characters in this novel. I'm so enamored of Renzo Leoni, who takes on different personalities, even, at times to his own family, and ultimately pays the price for being so credible. The heroism of some of the characters is small and strong; whether it's a young soldier who falls for a Jewish girl who's fleeing with her father, or a priest who just does what he thinks is right for his neighbors, the story is compelling and believable. Russell even dares to try and explain evil to us, in the story of a German man who becomes a doctor for all the right reasons, but ends up using his knowledge for pure horror and who fights for understanding and even redemption.
The stories flow. Some will interest more than others, depending on who you are, where you're from. Some of the people are hard to take, some of the things that happen to them range from flat-out sad to horrific. But the truly righteous are anything but: they're brave and they're human, above all. In reading books like A Thread of Grace, I think we all tend to wonder "what would I have done?" It's not a bad question, even if it's impossible to answer. And with talent and yes, with grace, this novel might help us all answer that soul-searching and hard question. | March 2005
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.