The Washington Post
A Thread of Graceby Mary Doria Russell
"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… See more details below
"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 seemingly overnight it becomes 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 characters - a charismatic Italian resistance leader, a priest, an Italian rabbi's family, a disillusioned German doctor. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the vast underground effort of the Italian citizens who saved the lives of 43,000 Jews during the final phase of the war. The result of five years of meticulous research, A Thread of Grace is a novel of ideas and history.
The Washington Post
–Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club
“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
“Essential reading for people who love Italy. You will lose yourself completely in this ecumenical epic of Italians working together to save Jewish refugees during the German Occupation of 1943-1944. Russell has a deep empathy for her characters and writes with genius about the horrors of guerrilla war. This wholly absorbing historical novel ends with perhaps the most moving coda in fictional history.”
–Susan Cahill, author/editor of Desiring Italy and The Smiles of Rome
From the Hardcover edition.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.71(w) x 9.52(h) x 1.23(d)
Read an Excerpt
Greater Italy 1943 Anno Fascista XXII
8 September 1943
Porto Sant'Andrea, Liguria Northwestern Coast of Italy
A simple answer to a simple question. That's all Werner Schramm requires.
"Where's the church?" he yells, belligerent and sick--sicker yet when his shout becomes a swampy cough.
A small crowd gathers to appreciate the spectacle: a Waffen-SS officer, thin, fortyish, and liquored up. He props his hands against his knees, coughing harder. "La basilica!" he gasps, remembering the Italian. "San Giovanni--dove è?"
A young woman points. He catches the word campanile, and straightens, careful of his chest. Spotting the bell tower above a tumble of rooftops that stagger toward the sea, he turns to thank her. Everyone is gone.
No matter. Downhill is the path of least resistance for a man who's drunk himself legless. Nearer the harbor, the honeyed light of the Italian Riviera gilds wrecked warehouses and burnt piers, but there's not much bomb damage inland. No damned room for an explosion, Schramm thinks.
Jammed between the Mediterranean and the mountains, the oldest part of Porto Sant'Andrea doesn't even have streets--just carrugi: passages barely wide enough for medieval carts. Cool and shadowy even at noon, these masonry ravines wind past the cobblers' and barbers' shops, apothecaries, vegetable stands, and cafés wedged at random between blank-walled town houses with shuttered windows.
Glimpses of the bell tower provide a sense of direction, but Schramm gets lost twice before stumbling into a sunny little piazza. He scowls at the light, sneezes, wipes his watering eyes. "Found you!" he tells the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista. "Tried t'hide, but it didn' work!"
San Giobatta, the locals call this place, as though John the Baptist were a neighborhood boy, poor and charmless but held in great affection. Squatting on a granite platform, the dumpy little church shares its modest courtyard with an equally unimpressive rectory and convent, their builder's architectural ambition visibly tempered by parsimony. Broad stripes of cheap black sandstone alternate with grudgingly thin layers of white Carrara marble. The zebra effect is regrettable.
Ineffective sandbags surround the church, its southeast corner freshly crumpled and blackened by an Allied incendiary bomb. A mob of pigeons waddle through the rubble, crapping and cooing. "The pope speaks lovely German," Schramm informs them. "Nuncio to Berlin before he got his silly hat. Perhaps I ought to go to Rome and confess to Papa Pacelli!"
He laughs at his own impertinence, and pays for it with another coughing fit. Eyes watering, hands trembling, he drops onto the basilica staircase and pulls out the battered flask he keeps topped up and nestled near his heart. He takes small sips until brandy calms the need to cough, and the urge to flee.
Prepared now, he stands. Squares his shoulders. Advances resolutely on massive doors peopled with bronzed patriarchs and tarnished virgins. Curses with surprise when they won't yield to his tug. "I want a pries'!" he yells, rapping on the door, first with his knuckles and then more insistently with the butt of his Luger.
Creaking hinges reveal the existence of a little wooden side door. A middle-aged nun appears, her sleeves shoved into rubber gauntlets, her habit topped by a grimy apron. Frowning at the noise, she is short and shaped like a beer keg. Her starched white wimple presses pudgy cheeks toward a nose that belongs on a propaganda Jew.
Christ, you're homely.
Schramm wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wondering if he has spoken aloud. For years, words have threatened to pour out, like blood from his throat. He fears hemorrhage.
Shivering in the heat, he makes a move toward the door. The nun bars his way. "La chiesa è chiusa!" she says, but Schramm pushes past her.
The baptistry reeks of carbolic, incense, explosives, and charred stone. Three novices scour its limestone floor. The prettiest sits on her heels, her face smudged with soot from the firebomb's damage. Calmly, she studies the Luger dangling in this German's right hand. Behind him, Sister Beer Keg snaps her fingers. Eyes drop. Work resumes.
Schramm shoves the pistol into its holster, pulls off his campaign cap, and rubs a sweaty palm over cropped brown hair. The nave is empty apart from a single man who ambles down the center aisle, neck cranked back like a cormorant's, hands clasped loosely behind his back. This personage studies the swirling seraphim and whey-faced saints above, himself an allegorical portrait come to life: Unconcern in a Silver-Gray Suit.
Distracted by the tourist, Schramm takes a step toward the confessionals and trips over a bucket of water. "Scheisse," he swears, hopping away from the spill.
"Basta!" the fat nun declares, pulling him toward the door.
"Io need ein padre!" he insists, but his Italian is two decades old--the fading souvenir of a year in Florence. The Beer Keg shakes her head. Standing his ground, Schramm points at a confessional. "Un padre, understand?"
"La chiesa è chiusa!"
"I know the church is closed! But I need--"
"A strong black coffee?" the tourist suggests pleasantly. His German is Tyrolean, but there's no mistaking the graceful confidence of an Italian male who employs a superb tailor. "A medical officer!" he says, noting the insignia on Schramm's collar. "You speak the language of Dante most vigorously, Herr Doktor, but the people of this region generally use a Ligurian dialect, not the classical Italian you are--"
"Butchering," Schramm supplies, with flat accuracy.
"Striving for, one might have said. With your permission, I can explain to Suora Marta that you're seeking a priest who speaks German."
Schramm listens hard, but their dialect is as thick as an Austrian's head, and he gives up until the tourist translates. "Suora tells me Archbishop Tirassa's assistant speaks excellent German. Confessions, however, will not be heard again until Saturday." When Schramm begins to protest, the Italian holds up a conciliatory hand. "I shall point out that in time of war, the angel of death is more capricious than usual. Preparation for his arrival should not be delayed."
The man's voice becomes a soothing melody of persuasion and practicality. Schramm watches Suora Marta's face. She reminds him of his mother's sister, a Vincentian nun equally short and dumpy and ugly. "Like Papa used t'say, 'Christ'll take what nobody else wants.' "
"And so there is hope, even for pigs like you," the nun replies.
Schramm's jaw drops. A stunned laugh escapes his interpreter. Eyes fearlessly on Schramm's own, Suora Marta removes her rubber gloves and apron. Without hurry, she untucks her habit, straightens her gown, folds her outer sleeves back to the proper cuff length. Hands sliding beneath her scapular, she gives Schramm one last dirty look before gliding away with chubby dignity.
Schramm tips a mouthful of brandy down his throat. "Verdammte Scheisse! Why didn' you tell me she speaks German?"
"I didn't know! As a general rule, however, courtesy has much to recommend it in any language. This is a small port, but many of us have a working knowledge of German," the man continues, deflecting the conversation ever so slightly. "We've done a fair amount of business with Venezia Giulia since 1918--. Pardon! No doubt you would call the region Adriatisches Küstenland."
"Mus' cost a fortune for new stationery every time the border moves," Schramm remarks, offering the brandy.
"Printers always prosper." The Italian raises the flask in salute and takes a healthy swallow. "If you won't be needing me anymore . . . ?"
Schramm nods, and the man strolls off toward an alcove, pausing to admire a fresco of the Last Judgment that Schramm himself finds unnecessarily vivid. Searching for a place to sit, Schramm gets a fix on some pews near the confessionals, takes another sip from the flask. "No retreat!" he declares. Probably aloud.
The tourist's slow circuit of the church is punctuated by murmurs of dismay. A fifteenth-century baptismal font is damaged. A colorful jumble of shattered glass lies beneath a blown-out window. "Verdamm' Tommies," Schramm mutters. "British claim're only bombing military sites, but Hamburg is rubble! Dehousing the workers, that's what they call it. Terrorflieger, we call it. Leverkusen, München. Köln, Düsseldorf. Rubble, all of them! Did you know that?"
"We hear only rumor these days, even with the change in government," the Italian replies, declining comment on Mussolini's recent fall from power.
Schramm waves his flask at the damage before taking another pull. "RAF pilots're so fugging inaggurate--" Schramm tries again. "They are so . . . fucking . . . inaccurate." Satisfied with his diction, he swivels his head in the direction of his new friend. "They call it a hit if they aim at a dock and smash a church!"
"Very sloppy," the Italian agrees. "A shocking lack of professional pride!"
Slack-jawed, Schramm's skull tips back of its own accord. He stares at the painted angels wheeling above him until his hands lose track of what they're supposed to be doing and the flask slips from his fingers. He aims his eyes at the floor, where the last of the liquor is pooling. "Tha's a pity," he mourns. Laboriously, he lifts first one foot and then the other onto the pew, sliding down until he is prone. "Fat ol' nun," he mutters. Pro'ly never committed a sin in her whole life . . .
A sharp noise awakens him. Coughing and crapulous, Schramm struggles to sit up. His confessor hasn't arrived, but chunks of stone have been neatly stacked by the door. Sweeping shards of colored glass into a pile, the Italian flirts gallantly with the novices. The pretty one flirts back, dimpling when she smiles.
Schramm slumps over the back of the pew in front of him, cushioning his brow on folded arms. "I'm going to be sick," he warns a little too loudly.
The Italian snaps his fingers. "Suora Fossette! The bucket!" The newly christened Sister Dimples scrambles to deliver it, and only just in time. "Allow me," the gentleman says, courteous as a headwaiter while Schramm pukes into the dirty water.
Swiping at his watering eyes with trembling hands, Schramm accepts the proffered handkerchief. "Touris', translator . . . now you're a nurse!"
"A man of endless possibilities!" the Italian declares, setting the bucket aside.
He has a face off a fresco: bent-nosed and bony, but with a benign expression. Old enough to be tolerantly amused by another's disgrace. Someone who might understand . . . Schramm wants to tell this kindly stranger everything, but all that comes out is "I was tryin' t'make things better."
"Always a mistake," the Italian remarks. "Where are you staying, Oberstabsarzt? Would you like to come back another day?"
Schramm shakes his head stubbornly. "'Dammte Schpageddi-Fresser. Italians're always late! Where is that shit of a priest?"
"Lie down, Herr Doktor." Schramm feels his legs lifted onto the pew. "Rest your eyes. The priest will come, and then we'll get you back where you belong."
"No, thank you," Schramm says firmly. "Hell exists, you know. Any combat soldier can tell you that." The other man stops moving. "I knew you'd un'erstan'! So heaven's real, too! Logic, ja?"
Their moment of communion is over. "I myself am not a devout Catholic," the Samaritan informs him regretfully. "My opinions about heaven and hell needn't trouble you."
"Righ' . . . righ'." Almost asleep, Schramm mumbles, "You're not a bad fellow . . ."
Moments later, he is snoring like a tank engine, and does not hear the hoot of delighted laughter that echoes through the basilica. "Did you hear that, Sisters?" his intepreter asks. "The Nazi says I'm not a bad fellow!"
"For a spaghetti chomper," Suora Fossette amends solemnly.
Musical giggles are quickly stifled when swift footsteps and whispering fabric announce a priest's approach. "Grüss Gott, mein Herr," he says, shooting a stern look at the novices. "I am Osvaldo Tomitz, secretary to His Excellency Archbishop Tirassa."
"Don Osvaldo! Piacere: a pleasure to meet you!" says a well-dressed civilian. "I'm Renzo Leoni."
Tomitz's confusion is plain. Suora Marta undoubtedly told him that the man wishing to confess is an obnoxious German drunk. "How may I be of service to you, signor?"
"Ah, but I am not the one who sought your services, Don Osvaldo." Leading the way toward the confessionals, Leoni presents a Waffen-SS officer passed out cold on a pew.
Nose wrinkling at the sour smell of vomit and brandy, Tomitz snorts. "So that's the Aryan superman we've heard so much about."
"Yes. Disappointing, really," Leoni concurs, but his eyes are on the priest. "Tomitz, Tomitz . . . You're from Trieste, aren't you? Your family's in shipping!"
Don Osvaldo draws himself up, surprised by recognition. In his early forties, of medium height and medium weight, with medium-brown hair framing regular features, not one of which is memorable, Osvaldo Tomitz must introduce himself repeatedly to people who have already met him. "My father was with Lloyds Adriatico. We moved here when the Genoa office opened a branch in Sant'Andrea. How did you know?"
"The name is Austrian. The German is Habsburg. The Italian is Veneto. Ergo: Trieste! As for the rest? I cheated: my father was a commercial photographer. Lloyds was a good customer. I met your father when I was a boy. You must have been in seminary by then. How is Signor Tomitz?"
"He passed away last year. I was teaching at Tortona. I asked for a position here so I could be nearer my mother."
"My sympathies, Don Osvaldo. My mother, too, is a widow."
Satisfied to have established a connection, Leoni returns his attention to the drunk. With an almost professional efficiency, he pats the Nazi down and removes the man's wallet. "Herr Doktor Oberstabsarzt Werner Schramm is with the Waffen-SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Hausser's Second Armored Corps, late of the Russian front . . . Currently staying at the Bellavista. He's in Sant'Andrea on two weeks' leave." Leoni looks up, puzzled.
"Odd," Osvaldo agrees. "To come from such a hell, and spend his leave in Sant'Andrea?"
"Why not Venice, I wonder? Or Florence, or Rome?" Leoni glances apologetically at the frescoes. "No offense, Padre, but San Giobatta is not exactly a top draw." Leoni replaces the wallet and resumes his frisk. Withdrawing a silver cigarette case, he offers its contents to the priest with exploratory hospitality. "Prego! Take half," he urges. "Please--I'm sure the doctor would insist."
"He's not a bad fellow," one of the novices comments, "for a Nazi."
"Suora!" Don Osvaldo cries.
Dimples disappearing, the white-veiled sister scrubs virtuously at the mosaics, but Leoni's laughter fills the basilica. Disarmed, Don Osvaldo scoops his half of the cigarettes out of the case. Leoni offers a light. "American," Osvaldo notes with some surprise, examining the fine white tissue paper. "I wonder where he--"
"Smoking in a church!" Suora Marta grumbles, trundling down the aisle. Already annoyed, she smells vomit, and her mouth twists. "Swine!" she snaps at the insensible German.
"Judge not, Suora!" Leoni reminds her piously. "I'm inclined to respect a soldier who has to get that drunk before confession. He must have an admirable conscience to be so ashamed."
She holds out a hand. "Give me the rest."
Leoni's brows shoot upward. "Santo cielo! Do you smoke, Suora?"
"Don't waste my time, Leoni. Tobacco's better than gold on the black market. We've got orphans to feed."
Excerpted from A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell Copyright ©2005 by Mary Doria Russell. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
By the fall of 1943, European Jews not in death camps or murdered seek sanctuaries in places like Italy¿s Piedmont Province though this area as a refugee haven remains questionable. The small village of Porto Sant'Andrea is home for Italian Jews led by Rabbi Soncini, Italian Catholics led by Father Tomitz, and the occupying German army represented by Doktor Schramm. Into this mix come non-Italian Jews especially from occupied France.--- The three prime groups in the village have a tentative peaceful co-existence, but the influx of newcomers places that in jeopardy. The Italian Jews want to welcome their mostly religious kin with open arms. Father Tomitz sets the tone for his followers by providing shelter for the Jews. While Doktor Shramm hides with drink from his murdering almost 100,000 people of which he can account for seemingly everyone, the German leaders blindly follow orders to carry out the Final Solution. Into this volatile situation come the allies.--- A THREAD OF GRACE is a fabulous complex historical tale (not sci fi as Mary Doria Russell¿s¿ two previous works are) that brings alive a dark era through seemingly real people. The story line is fast-paced with multiple subplots that add to the depth and the feel of 1943 Italy. With plenty of tidbits and multifaceted perspectives, the amazing part remains the ensemble cast regardless of national origin or religion which all seem so genuine; for instance the plight of a French Jew with his daughter struggling to cross the Alps to Italy is breathtaking. World War II readers will want to read this slice of an odious era where lights of courageous kindness existed.--- Harriet Klausner
Over the years, I've figured out that reading is about 90% frustration and 10% illumination. Most books aren't that good. If they're entertaining, they're not any more entertaining than a movie or video game would be. But every once in awhile, you stumble across a book that, stealing from Emily Dickinson, chases you through the dark. You don't want to put it down, and even after you have, it won't leave you alone. You remember again that writing is an art form that can draw you in like no other medium. A Thread of Grace opens just after Italy has surrendered to the Allies in World War II. German and Allied forces fight for control, bombers and infantry turn centuries-old cities into the front lines. Instead of focusing on soldiers in one or the other army, Thread of Grace is populated by the ordinary people trapped in the middle of the war, farmers, priests, and Jewish refugees struggling to survive one more day. Wonderfully written, heroic and tragic without slipping into melodrama, I honestly can't think of anyone who I wouldn't recommend this book to. If you've hit a dry spell recently, and the half-read, not-bad-but-nothing-to-write-home-about books are piling up, grab this one. I promise, you'll thank me.
For those who take reading seriously and enjoy character development and plot this is a must addition to your reading list.
A Thread of Grace shares with readers both the horror and incredible cruelty and intolerance that mankind is cable of, while sharing a story of the triumph of human spirit, raw courage, tenacity and graciousness that human beings are capable of as well. Mary Doria Russell's characters are human and therefore flawed -- which makes them all the more real and engaging for the reader. Heros are anti-heros and demons find redemption and just as in life, the good do not always survive -- but their determination and strength of purpose do. A really excellent novel
A story that lets you know just what people can do to help their fellow man.
This book was terrible! I read it for my book club & not 1 person was able to get through it. I tried, but was 100% confused. There were so many people & I had no idea what was going on! soooo not worth it!
One of my favorite books of all times....
Although it took quite a few pages to get drawn into the plot and familiarize myself with the abundance of characters, the effort could not be more worth it! The author tells a touching, inspiring story of human experience in the mid of a war torn Europe, allowing the reader to feel with each character and comprehend the pain that war inflicted on the lives of regular people, even the ones who were not on the front or in concentration camps. Set in the background of Italian culture, this read is a pearl of modern literature. I couldn't recommend it more.
Incredible! Drop whatever you are doing or reading and settle into a comfortable chair with A THREAD OF GRACE by Mary Doria Russell. I haven't been swept up into a book in this way for quite some time. The era and hauntingly emotional impact of this story strongly brought to mind another book in my 'deeply affecting' category, that being SOPHIE'S CHOICE by William Styron. I began the 430 page book early on a Sunday afternoon, read thru until 5:30 am the next morning, slept a few hours and finished the book a few hours later. I'm even considering beginning the book again so I don't have to let go of the amazingly compelling characters!
If not for my book club I would have never picked up this wonderful book. Mary Doria Russell has written historical fiction the way it was meant to be written, accurate historical research wrapped in an exquisitely written, compelling story. Bravo! By jump starting our education on the Italian resistance and the everyday courage of the Italian people, stories that seem to have been side tracked in American memory and media, Russell landed all historical fiction tumblers perfectly into place!
This was not an easy or lighthearted book, but well worth the effort. I learned much about WWII and the many heroes it created. I found myself stopping and looking up information about fascism and other points of history along the way.
Completely unlike my favorites by the author in space and time, but so similar in its depth of character and emotion. Historically accurate, deyailef and compelling.
This is simply one of the best pieces of historical fiction I've ever read. The author's meticulous research brings the characters and the plot to life. It shows you the best and worst of humanity, without being preachy. I think it should be requried reading for everyone.
It¿s set in Italy at the end of WWII, and although some characters die, one thing I appreciated was that it wasn¿t overly-dramatic or emotionally manipulative. The author didn¿t pull your heartstrings unnecessarily. Otherwise, it might have been too difficult to read. Typically, I stay away from books about WWII or the Holocaust because they¿re so dark. But this book is actually rather hopeful.
The title comes from a Hebrew saying: "No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of Grace.¿ The book is really about sacrificing to help those who need it most, doing the greater good. Neighbor helping neighbor, regardless of religion or ethnicity, during a time of ultimate crisis. Really, it was very uplifting and definitely rewarding.
This is the kind of book that sticks with you & would be perfect for a book club because it has so many discussion topics.
Not only do you follow the struggles of the Jewish people in this epic but of the Italians and Germans as well. This is a moving, touching book that will keep you reading well into the night. At first, keep your finger on the list of characters in the beginning, then, take off and read! This is one book I have given to other book lovers and no one has yet to be disappointed!
This book was amazing. The characters were so detailed and realistic. The background so well written. It's amazing to know that the Italians helped to save so many at the risk of their own lives. It's inspiring and courageous and this book sends a strong message.
Brilliant writing, incredible characters and well researched historical fiction. This book is wonderful, the best historical fiction I have read in a very long time. The story moves along so quickly, I wanted it to last much longer. The characters are so well developed I can picture them and feel their anger, sorrows and small victories ¿ what a cast, Italian Jews, Roman Catholic clergy, communists, anti-fascists. I never knew how much the Italians sheltered the Jews and gave up their own freedom many times in their efforts to drive the hated Germans from their country. Artful descriptions of the Italian countryside and coast, I would love to visit that area some day. What more can I say about this book, but it is exceptional and deeply moving. Buy it now ¿ it would be great for book clubs also.
This book offers an interesting look into the Italian front during WWII -- something I wasn't very familiar with, even through the few years I spent studying the war in college history courses. I highly recommend the book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction. The book has a few cons, though. First, the characters. It gets extremely bogged down with numerous characters. And then, how the characters are referenced (first name, surname, nickname) changes from chapter to chapter -- sometimes within the same chapter. It gets confusing and I needed to constantly reference the author's list of characters. Second, the plot. With a bunch of characters comes plots that somewhat interact with each other but largely stand alone. This is also conflicting for a reader and makes an already long book take a bit longer to get through. In addition, the author opens with Renzo and Werner. Their storyline was the most interesting and I found myself looking forward to chapters including them. Other characters didn't have the same depth. If this book had focused solely on Renzo and Werner then this could have been a 5-star novel. Alas, it was a messy, long novel that had little direction.
Beautifully written story. This book Tells a story of bravery and social conscience in a period when it seemed to have been forgotten. Highly recommend for those who like historical fiction.
Informative and engrossing
Kept my interest ~ learn a lot about italian citizens in WWII ~ they were very fair to the jewish immigrants and strong in defending their country against nazism. Kept my interest through out the book ~ highly recommend