Once in a while, I find a book that is satisfying in every way: great story, compelling characters, a detailed and accurate historical backdrop, and exploration of deeply important questions important to people in any time or place.
I’ve just finished reading A Thread of Grace, a novel by Mary Doria Russell (New York, Ballantine, ©2005). The story is terrific, not only because it is well-told, but because it is based on the truth. Set in Northern Italy during 1943-1945, the book tells the story of Italian Catholics who sheltered Jewish refugees, at great cost and great risk; the German occupying army and their execution of a war strategy created in far-off Berlin; and the Italian partisans who sacrificed everything to defend their homes and freedom against the invading Germans.
The characters are compelling: A German doctor, deserted from the German SS, who must face his role in the murder of more than 91,000 innocent Jews. The Italian priest who cannot bring himself to absolve the doctor’s sin. A 15-year-old Belgian Jew who, in crossing the Alps on foot to escape the Nazis, walks away from her childhood and into womanhood. The charismatic Italian Jewish pilot, veteran of World War I, who must grapple with his own guilt that differs only in scale from the stain on the German doctor’s hands. The Italian rabbi who struggles to protect and preserve his community as it falls to Hitler’s grasp. The rabbi’s wife, who tries to support her husband’s work even though it puts their own family risk.
The trajectory of Russell’s narrative rises steadily from the opening pages, arching across four years and leading us to the inevitable conclusion. With a sure and brilliant lyricism, Russell spares no detail in depicting the brutalities and savagery of modern warfare, though there are moments of beauty, too, made all the more poignant interspersed as they are among the ugliness and sadness.
Underlying the narrative are questions of morality, forgiveness, and salvation. Is it permissible to kill one person, that hundreds or thousands of others may live? Will God forgive every sin, even a murder? Or the murder of 200? Or the murder of 91,000 innocents? Must a Catholic priest offer absolution to anyone who enters the confessional? And what must the priest do when the confession includes information that could save more thousands from certain death?
The centuries-old tension between Jews and gentiles pervades the novel, both in the overshadowing terror of the Holocaust, and in the sometimes-strained relationships between Jews and Catholics in the towns and villages in which the story is set. But there are also deep and loving relationships between the different groups, as well as significant acts of cooperation and collaboration against the common enemy, Hitler and Nazism. In the light of this collaborative spirit, the efforts of the Nazis to discover and deport all Jews from Italy seem all the more pathetic and small-minded.
For me, the mark of a really good book is this: That I don’t want it to end. That I am sad, even bereft, when I have read the last page and closed the book. That often, I immediately turn to the first page and start reading it all over again.
I finished this book last night, and I missed it so much that I started reading it again today.