Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Damn it, Mary Doria Russell made me cry again!
Culture class is once again the culprit, although this time it's Nazi anti-Semitism versus the Italian resistance instead of Jesuits and scientists versus aliens on Alpha Centauri. A Thread of Grace begins with Italy's surrender to the Allies, and from the Jewish perspective of the book, this is one of history's great ironies. It's a relief that Italy has surrendered; to be sure, this is a turning point in the war. Jews in the Italian-occupied territories were safe from the Nazis, but now the Italian army is going home. Many Jewish families choose to accompany it over the mountains, but when they arrive in Italy, they find the Germans are there too. So much for the war being over.
Irony is recurrent in A Thread of Grace, often as the companion of macabre humour. Most of this book is obvious and predictable. It's easy to guess that Claudette and Santino will fall in love; it's obvious that Stefania is the missing Steffi; when Renzo and his elderly mother team up to free Iacopo, is it really a surprise when she doesn't make it out alive? Tragedy meets the main characters at every turn, and the attrition rate is incredibly high, even for a war novel. But this irony and predictability work in tandem to ramp up the pathos. It's called foreshadowing. We know bad things will happen, because that's a given for any story, doubly so for WWII novels. But we start having an inkling of what specific fates await these characters, all of our characters. As the story draws toward a close, these foreshadowed fates tighten their grasp around our hearts, refusing to let go. Claudette, the stalwart widow; Renzo, embracing irony to the end; Osvaldo, a flawed priest with so much courage.
These are all characters worth our time and empathy. I'll admit, sometimes they seemed to blend together. (This might be a result of every character having about seven different names and endearments; now I understand why we get a dramatis personae.) But it's worth the effort to distinguish between the characters and understand their individual sorrows.
Claudette is, as I mentioned before, a widow. Well, she starts as a precocious fourteen-year-old, marries young, and becomes a widow. The war takes from her all her family, beginning with her mother (though she doesn't acknowledge it for a long time), then her father, and finally her newfound husband. Before he leaves her to turn himself in for the "crime" of killing several Nazis who were gang-raping a young woman, he and Claudette conceive a child. Lest you accuse MDR of any false sentimentality, however, I'll disabuse you right now: the child is prematurely born and dies soon after. This is not a book about miracles; it is a book about humility in the face of great catastrophe.
Renzo is one of my favourite characters. He is the trickster of the group, always ready with a confidence game or deception to trip up the Germans. In particular, he loves disguises, to the point of establishing an alternative Aryan identity of "Ugo Messner." This leads him to an unfortunate and ironic end at the hands of his fellow countrymen, who recognize him only as Ugo and not Renzo when the time comes to punish the Germans who don't manage to retreat. But it's not all fun and games for Renzo. There is a deeper sadness about him, a melancholy made evident by his attachment to alcohol. He is literally and deliberately drinking himself to death over his guilt for bombing a Red Cross hospital in Abyssinia. The action continues to haunt him as he helps coordinate the resistance. Renzo is a man for whom happiness comes only in the momentary joy that accompanies children playing; long-lasting contentment and peace, he knows, is forever beyond his reach.
Schramm is less likable, in that he is a former Nazi and readily confesses to sharing some of their ideology. It's not clear how much of that ideology he has renounced; certainly he struggles with long-held views on the mercifulness of euthanizing the mentally ill and weak. His most memorable scene is a confrontation with Mirella. First he reassures her that malnutrition was not the cause of her second child's Down's syndrome. Then he goes on, unfortunately, to mention that the child's accidental death was a blessing, for no one with Down's syndrome could live a fulfilling life, and children with such conditions just drive families apart. Mirella fumes at such an assertion. Schramm doesn't mean to upset her or to proselytize Nazism. He's just internalized, through his medical training, these beliefs, to the point that they are present and on the tip of his tongue.
I could go on at length about other characters, but the above three were my favourites. It's a shame that MDR did not extend their complexity and depth to her antagonists. The Germans representing the occupying forces are a joke. Von Thadden is the intelligent but oblivious general who moves for mysterious reasons and ends up dead because of it. Reinecke is the competent but unimaginative aide. And Arthur Huppenkothen (AH!) is the caricature of an uptight Gestapo who takes his loyalty to the Führer and the Vaterland entirely too seriously. Even the tone in which these characters are written is bumbling and supercilious. This is something that could work well in another type of WWII novel, but it really undermines the emotional chord that MDR maintains throughout the rest of the book. I just can't take von Thadden or Huppenkothen seriously, even if they are villains who order reprisals against civilians.
Likewise, the Italians and Jews we meet are reluctant heroes or neutral to the partisan cause. Just once I would have liked to see a collaborator, someone who sided with the Germans out of fascist solidarity. Battista comes close, being a fascist and somewhat temperamental, but it's clear he's closer in allegiance to the partisans than to the Nazis. This is a peculiar omission in an otherwise well-rounded story.
The plot, you'll notice, I've largely avoided discussing, because it's not at all remarkable. It's just the minutiae of these characters' struggles to survive under German occupation and repel the Germans from Italy. There are a few memorable scenes, such as Schramm's aforementioned confrontation with Mirella and the subsequent scare with the undetonated bomb. For the most part, however, they are generic misfortunes. This seems to be an artifact of how MDR wrote the characters to stand for all refugees and all partisans; A Thread of Grace is an unapologetic microcosm for the humanity and succour the Italians extended to the Jews. I just wish the characters were more reified, less archetypal.
Yet I found myself tearing up at the end of the book. It's not sappy, and it isn't even very sentimental. MDR does her best to pull out all the stops; the protagonists lose family, friends, and fortune. This unrelenting commitment to the worst possible scenario makes the book work, preserves the eponymous "thread of grace" as an act of compassion, limited in its abilities rather than a panacea. It's not going to work out all right, and pretending otherwise would be insulting. A Thread of Grace is moving precisely because it acknowledges this part of the tragedy of World War II. It is a reminder that when big gestures fail and fixing the problem isn't possible, sometimes you just have to do what you can. Sometimes it won't be enough. But once in a while, you make a difference.