Synopses & Reviews
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.
"[A]n expansive, well-researched, and compelling novel....Russell is good at presenting the human story while never using the war merely as a backdrop for personal dramas." Booklist
"[A]n emotionally wrenching experience. Russell has succeeded in vividly and memorably evoking the hardships, dangers, sufferings and sorrows of wartime life in Nazi-occupied Italy in a somber, profoundly moving book that engages the heights and depths of human experience." Los Angeles Times
"Fans of Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God will be thrilled by her masterful new novel. A Thread of Grace is a rich, multi-layered narrative that offers fresh insight into a devastating time in world affairs. A story of love and war, it speaks to the resilience and beauty of the human spirit in the midst of unimaginable horror. It is, unquestionably, a literary triumph." David Morrell, author of The Brotherhood of the Rose and First Blood
"Russell's characters were slow to come to life, and dialogue in the opening chapters was stiff. But as the pages rolled by, her people did come to life, without exception becoming more complex and more interesting. The writing, too, began to strike sparks." San Jose Mercury News
"Russell is a smart, passionate and imaginative writer, and there wasn't a moment when I wanted to set this book aside. It's a vivid account of northern Italy during World War II." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] rich, rewarding, and well-researched tale of WWII....Beautiful, noble, fascinating, and almost unbearably sad." Kirkus Reviews
"Densely populated, well-plotted novel, which is thick with intersecting plots and characters most of them both colorful and memorable." Seattle Times
"Lord only knows, we've got plenty of World War II novels already....Many of these books are good and some are great, but surely we've got enough of them by now which is probably what a lot of people will think when they hear about Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace
. Nevertheless, it would be a big mistake to write off this absorbing novel....[T]he book is a veritable symphony of action, deploying about a dozen characters (all solidly delineated), in a nonstop string of escapes, ambushes, ruses, sabotages, sorties, disguises, coded communications and rescues." Laura Miller, Salon.com
(read the entire Salon.com review
About the Author
The author of prize-winning research in paleoanthropology, Mary Doria Russell
has written two previous novels, The Sparrow
and Children of God
. She lives with her husband and son in Cleveland, Ohio.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. Renzo and Schramm have both committed crimes against civilians during war, but the priest Don Osvaldo feels there is some essential difference between the two mens actions. Is the difference merely a matter of scale, or is there an ethical difference? Does your emotional response to each character color your opinion?
2. Renzo attempts to remain apolitical during the Nazi occupation. Was that a moral position or should he have fought the Nazis from the beginning? Is moderation or neutrality possible or even desirable during war?
3. We are accustomed to admiring the partisan resistance to German occupation during World War II. In todays world there are many places where armed resistance to occupying forces is called terrorism. What makes a resistance legitimate? Does the motive of the occupying force make any difference?
4. Claudettes children never understand her, and she dies a mystery to them. Have you been affected by the war experiences of a family member? Were you aware of how their experiences affected them?
5. Was Iacopo Soncini a bad husband or a good rabbi? How does having a family change the responsibilities of the clergy?
6. Imagine that you heard Schramms confession at the beginning of the book. If you were Don Osvaldo, what would you have told Schramm? Are there unforgivable sins?
7. Was Schramms remorse genuine at the end of the book? Why did he put his uniform back on when he was ordered to by the German officer at the hospital?
8. How would you feel about a moral universe where Schramm went to heaven and Renzo went to hell?
9. People who didnt live through World War II often believe theyd have hidden someone like Anne Frank or helped refugees from Nazi Germany the way the Italian peasants did. What would be an analogous risk today
I am a big fan of your novels. What took so long for a new one?
Ive become a dues-paying member of the sandwich generation while writing this book. Like many Baby Boomers, Im helping elderly and infirm relatives through illnesses and bereavement, just as my teenage son is learning to drive, starting to date, getting his heart broken, applying for summer jobs and college. My own health did a power-dive, and that episode took a two-year chunk out of my life. Thank God, my husband has been healthy all this time, so the household has run fairly smoothly!
Even without all that, A Thread of Grace would have been a bear. None of the characters are American, and the story is set in World War II Italy, so I am not drawing on my own language, culture or personal experiences at all. A dear friend advised me to finesse the issue: Just have everyone say Ciao a lot and eat pasta! But WWII is living memory and a topic of lively scholarly interest. There will be plenty of reviewers and readers wholl notice mistakes. And I feel a great responsibility to the people who entrusted their memories and personal stories to me. So Ive tried to get every miserable little detail right, but Im sure errors have slipped through.
Why World War II? Why Italy?
I am a Jew by choice and Italian by heritage. Shortly after I converted to Judaism, I came across a book by Alexander Stille called Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. My first reaction was, Italian Jews? I thought I was the only one! What do they eat? Lox parmesan? There was a section called The Priest, the Rabbi and the Aviator, which sounds like the set up for a joke, right? But it was all real, and riveting, and I thought, This has got to be my next story.
Everything in that book fascinated me. The oldest continuously existing Jewish community in Europe is in Rome. Fascism was invented by Mussolini, and Italy was Germanys ally, but Nazis occupied Italy for 20 months after the Italian government made a separate peace with the Allies in 1943. And the highest Jewish survival rate in Nazi-occupied Europe was in Italy! Weve spent 60 years trying to understand what went wrong during the Holocaust. I wanted to know what went right in Italy.
Many of the characters in A Thread of Grace have faith and believe in the religious foundations laid when they were young. What does war do to their faith?
Yes, each character is endowed with an ethical framework thats challenged at every moment and, in my books, no good intention ever goes unpunished. Sometimes the character fails to live up to his faiths ethics. Sometimes the character does everything right, only to be confronted with impossible choices. They all judge themselves, and hold themselves accountable. In Italy, you dont hear the Nuremberg refrain, I am not responsible. Theres an Italian saying that counters that: If you can help, you must help. Italians did, and they paid the price.
How did you decide on which characters in A Thred of Grace lived and which died?
So many survivors tell us it was blind, dumb luck, not heroism or decision that got them through the war. I wanted that element of chance in the story, so I had my son flip a coin. Heads, the character lived. Tails, the character died. How and why and when that was up to me as the storyteller.
How historically accurate is the novel?
Trust me: the most unbelievable things I write about are directly from interviews I did with rescuers and survivors and veterans, here and in Italy. Hannah Arendt wrote that evil was banal in the Third Reich, but in Italy goodness was banal. In six years of research, Ive yet to find a single instance where an Italian ratted out a Jew in hiding. Making that goodness believable to cynical modern Americans was the challenge! Early readers kept telling me, Oh, the Italian peasants are too nice to the refugees. The soldiers are too decent. So the fiction was that I toned down the decency or provided a motive for what was actually an unquestioning hospitality extended to strangers.
How did you integrate the history with your imagination?
I thought of it as constructing a fictional building with real bricks. Anyone whos familiar with Genoa and Cuneo and Borgo San Dalmazzo during the 1940s will recognize events I describe, but I wanted the freedom to imagine the emotions and conversations of my characters, so I mixed elements of various real peoples stories and assigned them to characters of different gender or age or nationality. I used memoirs and historical accounts of skirmishes and battles, and placed them in a fictional geography embedded in the real timeline of the war. That kind of thing.
I noticed that the characters in A Thred of Grace are of all ages, genders, religions, and ethnicities. Was this intentional?
Well, its about Europe during a period in which millions of people were displaced and in which there was no longer any distinction made between combatants and civilians. War stopped being a young mans experience. Beginning with Guernica, civilian populations were targeted on purpose. It was shocking then, and remains contemptible and tragic, but its standard operating procedure in modern conflict. We dont have battles between armies anymore.
Like your previous novels, A Thread of Grace exists in a very morally ambiguous universe. Is war the cause of ambiguity? Or is that just human nature?
I could probably make a theological case that God is the cause of moral ambiguity give a species free will, and look what happens! The thing about novels is that theyre a good tool for showing how point of view changes whats good and whats bad.
What was your favorite piece of research you uncovered while writing the book?
Finding out that Renzo Leoni would have flown a Caproni 133 triple-engine high-wing fighter-bomber during the Abyssinan War of 193536. Took weeks to track that detail down, but it was important.
Your first two novels were literary science fiction. What made you choose to write historical fiction for your new novel?
Actually, while I was writing The Sparrow, I thought of it as a historical novel that takes place in the future. Whether I was going forward 60 years or back in time 60 years, there was still a need to imagine a place and time that arent my own.
I cant tell you the number of times Ive asked myself, Jeez, Mary, would it kill you to write a story with a middle-aged Ohio housewife as the narrator? But I don't seem to be interested in writing what I know. I write what I don't know, and what I want to learn about.
Would you call A Thread of Grace an anti-war novel?
I wrote it to understand why war is perennial. Whats the payoff? Why are some men attracted to it, generation after generation? I wanted to make it comprehensible. Wars always seem to start for two reasons: to redress a past injustice and to restore lost honor. Inevitably, wars create new injustices and a different honor is lost. Each war is begun in hope and ends in despair, and each one carries the seeds of its successor. Understanding that depresses the hell out of me.
On the other hand, when the whole world appears to permit and reward the basest and most awful of human impulses, acts of decency and goodness are like gems in a dung pile. When else would the simple act of sharing a meal rise to the level of magnificence and courage?
A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell
QQ: What inspired you to write A Thread of Grace?
Mary Doria Russell: Shortly after my conversion to Judaism, I came across Alexander Stille’s book Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. The section called "The Priest, the Rabbi and the Aviator" was so dramatic, and so surprising, I set the book aside. I knew that I had to write about that era of Italian history somehow. When I mentioned this to a Polish Catholic friend, Maria Rybak, she told me a story about her aunt, who witnessed a Gestapo roundup of Jews during the war. "Never judge those of us who lived through those times," Maria’s aunt told her. "I saw a Jewish woman standing in the back of a truck with a baby in her arms. A lady standing in the crowd near me said, ‘Give me your child!’ The woman in the crowd could have been beaten for offering to take that baby. The mother had to decide: give her baby away or take the child with her to God knows what. Until you can imagine that, you can’t understand what it was like for us." So one of my goals with this novel was to recreate the immediacy of decisions like that. I wanted readers to buy in to decisions the characters made, and then "live" with the consequences as the story progressed. There was another moment that gave impetus to the writing of this story. One night I watched a PBS special about the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. A French woman was interviewed because her house was right in the middle of what became a battlefield. She and her kids hid in a cellar hour after hour, while mortars and machine gunfire exploded above them. When the noise finally stopped, she and the kids came upstairs into . . . nothing. The house had been blown to bits. Now, that woman understood the historic moment and the importance of that battle, and she was grateful she and her children had survived. But what stuck in my mind was her final lament: "I had just finished wallpapering the hallway." You can see how her remark came to be reflected in my novel.
QQ: It took you seven years to write A Thread of Grace. Why?
MDR: Well, first of all, there was a ton of research to do about the era, the war, the issues, the characters, but there were a lot of factors that slowed things down–primarily the fact that I became a card-carrying member of the Sandwich Generation. Just as menopause was hitting me like a brick upside the head, my husband’s dad was dying of congestive heart failure; Don’s mother is now ninety, and lives in Illinois, despite my warmest desire that she be nearer. My own mom, who lived in New Hampshire, fought ovarian cancer for a grueling fifty-five months. Two days ago, we thought my father would be going in for open-heart surgery, but it turned out he didn’t need it after all. The adrenaline is still draining out of my system, thirty hours later. Let’s see. . . my son learned to drive and started to date while I was working on A Thread of Grace, and got his heart broken, and had a minor accident, and applied to colleges. He leaves the nest for a semester at a time, and got straight A’s his freshman year, but comes back every few weeks to leave dirty dishes in the sink. Oh, and the collie died in my arms after running up spectacular vet bills, and then we got a golden retriever puppy; I was housebreaking Leo while writing about April 1944. Then I got myself a three-year-old rescue dachshund from Petfinder.com while editing the manuscript, just because I wanted her, dammit. And she is adorable, but the upshot is, my life is just as full of distractions and responsibilities and self-inflicted complication as everybody else’s. So that’s why A Thread of Grace took seven years to finish. I gave up at least once a week, but I have an almost pathological drive for task completion, and e-mail from readers (some of whom have become dear friends) kept me going.
QQ: Did you have a day job when you started writing? Has the success of the books changed your life much?
MDR: I was a PTA mom while writing my first two novels, The Sparrow and Children of God. We could afford to have me stay at home to raise Danny because my husband, Don, is a software engineer who makes a good buck and has never been out of work a single day since graduating from the University of Illinois, back before the earth’s crust cooled. When we moved to the Cleveland area in 1983, we were able to buy a lovely house in South Euclid for a very modest price, so we have never been burdened by unreasonable debt. Our son has always gone to the quite wonderful public schools here. The success of the first two books allowed me to fund my son’s college tuition at the University of Toledo, but he’s helped a lot by getting fabulous grades and a couple of generous merit scholarships.My big personal indulgence has been to hire Terry Wade and Daphne Robinson, who come once a week to keep the house up to standards my clean-crazy Italian nonna would have admired. You may notice that Teresina and Dafne do the same for Mirella Soncini in A Thread of Grace.
QQ:What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
MDR: In science fiction, two books stand out. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was the first novel I read twice, and then again every few years. She brought an anthropological sensibility to science fiction that I appreciated. There were multiple cultures, multiple languages, and the inevitable misunderstandings that result when a stranger is coping with utterly foreign concepts. I loved the device of an unreliable narrator, and reread this book before beginning The Sparrow, to study how she used literary aikido on her readers. The second book is Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. That book, too, is decades old, but stands up to rereading well. Again, there is a theme of well-intentioned misunderstanding of language, and a sort of archaeological approach to science fiction, this time with an appealing religious twist: after a nuclear holocaust, literacy is preserved in isolated Catholic monasteries. Among more recent books, I lean toward the kind of exquisite and hilarious observation of contemporary society that Karen Joy Fowler provides in The Jane Austen Book Club, and I loved her earlier World War II home front novel The Sweetheart Season. Karen has a way of making devastatingly funny remarks about less-than-admirable behavior, without ever being nasty or hurtful to the person involved. Another author whose work is both laugh-aloud funny and ironic, but also slyly sweet, is David Sosnowski. In his novel Vamped, he takes modern American culture and twists it around a single fictional fact: what if vampires were not only real, but eventually vamped nearly the entire population of the world? (Each meal makes a new vampire–a logical outcome of vampirism nobody else seems to have noted.) David makes you believe that this is just how America would react: with marketing campaigns for vacations in Alaska during the winter (no sun for six months, get it?) and illegal hunting trips for Òfree rangeÓ human blood. On my Web site, www.marydoriarussell.info, there’s a list of other books I’ve enjoyed, along with an annotated bibliography for A Thread of Grace.
QQ:What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
MDR: I seem to gravitate toward big operatic movies: Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Tombstone. I like a moral and literary structure, the sense of trying to live by some moral code, even when society is debased by war or crime. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are comedies that my family and I watch until we know the entire script by heart. The Princess Bride and Young Frankenstein were early favorites. And then there’s Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, which is nonstop violence and obscenity, but somehow not offensive! And I love movies with great dancing: Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Carlos Saura’s flamenco Carmen.
QQ:What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?
MDR: There’s a theme here: big, emotional, layered stuff appeals to me. I love arena rock albums like Van Halen’s 5150 and Def Leppard’s Hysteria. To me, those have the same fist-in-the-air power that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies have. And I love every other Sting album. Cerebral and beautiful–gotta love a guy who can work curriculum vitae into a pop song. And no, I don’t listen to music as I write. I have to have quiet for that.
QQ: Many writers are hardly overnight-success stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
MDR: Well, my story is that thirty-one agents turned The Sparrow down before Jane Dystel finally decided to take me on as a client. I don’t know if that’s inspirational or depressing, but it’s true.
QQ:What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer–and why?
MDR: Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935) by T. E. Lawrence. I saw the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia when it first came out in 1962. I was twelve then, and ripe for hero worship, and ready to imagine a larger world than Lombard, Illinois. I found a musty old copy of Seven Pillars, and to this day I remain fascinated by the book and the man who wrote it. I can name a number of direct effects of reading the book. Initially, I became interested in archaeology because of Lawrence’s early years, and that led me to anthropology, which sustained my interest through three degrees and years of professional work. I keep my hand in by editing the professional papers of friends in the field. Lawrence taught me that speaking more than one language opens doors to experiences you’d miss if you speak only English. Over the years, I’ve studied Spanish, Russian, French, and Croatian formally, with less studious stabs at Latin, Hebrew, Italian, and German. Each one has led me places I’d never have gone otherwise. Lawrence taught me that how you write is as important as what you have to tell about. Choice of word, rhythm, detail, editing, and overall structure make Seven Pillars literature, not just a military history or personal memoir. There are echoes of Lawrence’s experience in Deraa in my first novel, echoes of his war guilt in my third. I learned from Seven Pillars that intentions are irrelevant and regrets are useless: it doesn’t matter what you thought would happen, or that you meant no harm. Unintended consequences of good intentions is a theme I return to. I also caught the colon habit from reading his work: quod erat demonstrandum.
QQ:What are you working on now?
MDR: Dreamers of the Day is a novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. After the first World War, a handful of British and French diplomats got together in a nice hotel for a few days, took some fun camel rides out to see the pyramids and get their pictures taken, gossiped, flirted, argued–oh, yes, and invented the modern Middle East. I’ll come full circle with this one: T. E. Lawrence will actually be a character in the story, along with Lady Gertrude Bell, Winston Churchill, Chaim Weitzman, and Prince Feisal of the Hashemite royal family.
QQ: If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be–and why?
MDR: I would love to give a leg up to a young poet named Gary ten the libretto for an opera based on The Sparrow by the Puerto Rican composer Raymond Torres-Santos. And Gary will be collaborating on a project with me soon.
QQ:What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
MDR: Don’t rely on other writers to critique your work. Find passionate readers who know what they like and why. Ask them to read your drafts, and tell you what works and what doesn’t, where they didn’t buy a motive or believe in a character, when the dialog was clunky, or the description hackneyed. It’s thrilling to be part of someone else’s creative process, and good readers can be better than another writer for diagnosis and even prescription. I rely heavily on a team of friends who can criticize my work without breaking my heart or discouraging me, and I give them a lot of the credit for the success of my own novels.