A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell became one of my favorite writers after I read her only two books that fall into the science fiction genre: The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God, both of which rank high on my list of favorite books.

A Roman Catholic, Russell’s books frequently involve religious, and particularly Catholic, figures. Even her books on Doc Holliday feature Catholic missionaries. With this comes a Catholic sensibility regarding sin, redemption, grace, and, because it is what it is, the politics within the church itself.

Italy had generally lived in peace with its Jewish population following the revolution of 1848, and even under early Fascism generally ignored German demands to begin deporting Jews to the concentration camps. It wasn’t until 1943, when Allied troops began invading, that Jews were put on trains for deportation. Even today in major Italian cities there are monuments highlighting this national shame.

Though the government cooperated there was growing resistance among citizens, often led either by priests and other religious or by leftist partisans.

Russell outlines this epic underground resistance in this book. Introducing scores of characters, with dozens in major roles in the narrative, she describes the struggle to hide and protect Jewish families. Some of those are fellow Italians, some exiled from France and Spain, and still others still trying to make their way by foot over the Alps hoping for sanctuary in Italy.

It’s also the story, to a lesser degree, of Germans and a few sympathetic Italians still trying to gather Jews to deport them to death camps even as the Reich begins to collapse. The Germans, who had largely left Italy to Mussolini up to this point, also begin to take a larger role in managing Italian police and border guards, and of retaliations against deaths of German officers and soldiers by killing random citizens at a ratio of 50 to 1 or more.

Because only limited groups were allowed to travel after curfew, including priests and doctors, they became instrumental in supplying money, food, and false identification to those Italians harboring Jews. The book also focuses a great deal on Jewish children given false names and Christian identities so they could hide in Catholic convent schools.

The book has a broad arc, focusing on a handful of people to tell the story, but surrounding them with an incredible variety of other faces and voices, from children to ancient old Italian women living in small farm villages throughout northern Italy. Russell manages to bring them to life in just a few words giving the reader an immersive experience from start to finish. It’s filled with heroism and horror appropriate for the time and place yet still takes time to allow the characters time for self-examination.

It’s a phenomenal book and, now that I’ve finished the complete Russell canon, puts me in a position of either having to re-read them all or hope she comes out with another book. This could be a wait, as she only publishes every three to four years.