Lord only knows, we've got plenty of World War II novels already. Some are diverting thrillers, others are rich in chiaroscuro romanticism and still others lay out the torturous ethical puzzles faced by decent people confronting the evils of Nazism. 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.
The book is a fictionalized account of a little-known aspect of the war (if such a thing can truly be said to exist): the oft-thwarted attempts by the Nazis to eradicate Italy's Jewish population. During the last 20 months of the conflict, after Italy surrendered to the Allies, German forces moved in to occupy the country. Yet once the war was over, Italy had, according to Russell, the highest Jewish survival rate in Nazi-occupied Europe. The Italians (like the Dutch and the Bulgarians), found ways of resisting the German genocide machine.
From this description, or to anyone familiar with Russell's previous novel, "The Sparrow" -- the story of a Jesuit mission to another planet -- "A Thread of Grace" might sound like a philosophical novel in which the characters think a lot about right, wrong and the nature of faith. Instead, the 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.
The novel is set in and around the fictional northwestern Italian coastal town of Porto Sant'Andrea. At the beginning, Jewish refugees pour in from the north across the Alps in advance of the Germans, and some among the town's own small Jewish population realize that the Nazis will ratchet up the persecution to lethal levels once in control. With the help of local Italians, they go into hiding in convent schools, secret rooms, small villages, farms and caves up in the rustic hill country.
The central figure in this shifting parade of brave, desperate people is Renzo Leoni, a decommissioned pilot and WWI veteran with a bum knee, an atrocious drinking problem and seemingly more lives than all the cats in the Coliseum combined. Most of the other characters are, of necessity, quickly if boldly sketched, but Renzo is like one of Shakespeare's fools turned hero. He's there to drive the plot (disguised as a priest or a mailman or a Nazi sympathizer), to bust a rabbi out of jail, run phony I.D.s or lead a band of raggedy partisans -- and then he sticks around to comment sardonically on the results.
We first meet him in the basilica, where he offers assistance to a drunken German doctor seeking a confessional. "I was trying to make things better," the German wails. "Always a mistake," Leoni remarks and drags the man off to a bar. Befriending a Nazi in a church is the last thing you'd expect to find him doing; he is, we soon learn, a patriot and a Jew. Much later in the story, an SS officer, astonished to learn that the man he knew as a suave local collaborator is actually one of the partisans, will stammer, "You -- you sat at my table. You danced with my wife!" "You occupied my country," Leoni replies.
Captivating as Leoni is (and his steely, elegant mother Lidia is nearly as winning), he's also a roui with a death wish who drinks, as one character observes, "as if getting blotto were a job he means to do and do well." (A taste for the sauce isn't the only thing he has in common with that German doctor, in case you're wondering why.) After his own side perpetrates a particularly savage execution, we find him in the rain with an empty bottle, staring at pink puddles, muttering, "I've sworn off ethics."
Actually, hardly anyone in "A Thread of Grace" stops to consider ethics, let alone to swear off them; they face too many crises with not enough time. For these people, morality is a matter of deeds, not words or ideas; it's simply how they behave. Russell, in an interview included at the back of the book, explains that some of its early readers have found the behavior of the Italian protectors implausible, but in six years of intensive historical research she could not find a single instance of an Italian "ratting out a Jew in hiding." Ultimately, "A Thread of Grace" doesn't proffer explanations for why this was. We can call it hospitality, generosity, compassion or any other virtue we like. The Italians themselves would probably say it's just what they did.