Thursday, February 05, 2009

Book Review: A Thread of Grace

Mary Doria Russell's A Thread of Grace is a well-researched and compelling historical novel set in northern Italy during WWII. The story begins as the Italian government collapses and the area becomes controlled by German forces. Members of the Italian resistance and ordinary peasant folks hid their Jewish neighbors as well as Jews fleeing the Nazis from other countries. And many paid the price for their defiance.

The meaning of the title of the book is revealed at the end when Rabbi Iacopo Soncini visits one of the Catholic nuns who hid Jewish children in an orphanage after the war is over.

" There's a saying in Hebrew," he tells her, " 'No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.' After the Yom Kippur roundup in '43, people all over Italy helped us. Almost fifty thousand Jews were hidden. Italians, foreigners. And so many of them survived the occupation. I keep asking myself, Why was it so different here? Why did Italians help when so many others turned away?"

Russell offers some answers to the rabbi's question in the book, but ultimately, they are not fully satisfactory. The "thread of grace" seems to be the only answer to me.

Readers who are familiar with Russell's books The Sparrow and The Children of God, will see a similarity between the Emilio Sanchez, the conflicted priest in those books and the protagonist of this book, Renzo Leoni, the leader of the resistance who sometimes poses as a priest.

The novel is complex, compelling, disturbing and challenging on many levels. There are a few scenes of brutality that made me wish I hadn't read them so close to bedtime. I saw an article that said the author tossed a coin to determine the fate of several of the characters, which does reflect the random tragedy of war that afflicts "the just and the unjust."

I appreciated the "Coda" at the end of the novel that followed the life of one of the major characters after the war, revealing how it affected her and the family she had later.

It is important to remember not only what happened during the Holocaust, but that there were some "righteous Gentiles" who risked everything to protect the Jews and others targeted for extermination by Hitler and his henchmen. I'd like to think I would be as heroic as those in the book who sheltered their Jewish neighbors at the risk of life and limb, putting their own families at risk as well. But the truth is...I doubt it.

The Holocaust deniers cannot be allowed to rewrite history. We must Never. Ever. Forget.

Thread of Grace
would be a good choice for a small group study and discussion or a church book club. It's a great read and poses some deep theological and ethical questions. Here's a link to some suggested questions for discussion to get you started.

9 comments:

St. Casserole said...

I enjoy reading the books you suggest. I read the earlier Sparrow books. She is a compelling writer.
Thanks!

Gannet Girl said...

I love this book. She lives nearby and I heard her speak about Thread of Grace a few years ago - she's a wonderful speaker and the stories behind the story are as compelling.

Presbyterian Gal said...

You are so right. We must never ever forget this time.

Sounds like a great book! Goin' on my list.

zorra said...

Because I had enjoyed her other novels so much, I read this book a few months ago and was most impressed with it. It was one of those "couldn't put it down" reads.

ElastiGirl said...

i'm intrigued & now off to amazon!

Mary M said...

She is one of my favorite authors. All three of her fiction books are fabulous!

Heather J. said...

I agree, this is an amazing book. I just finished writing my review of it - it will go up on my blog tomorrow, and will include a link to your review as well.

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HereBeDragons said...

Not quite as impactful as The Sparrow, but still a good read.