McBride weaves magic with 'Miracle at St. Anna'

On Books

January 20, 2002|By Michael Pakenham

James McBride's first book, The Color of Water, a memoir published in 1996, sold more than 1.3 million copies and was a bestseller for two years. Now he has produced a novel, Miracle at St. Anna, (Riverhead / Penguin Putnam, 271 pages, $24.95). It evokes such power and beauty, pathos and love, that it may very well outstrip its precursor.

The story unfolds amid bitter, bloody, wintry combat in farm country in the Italian province of Tuscany, home to Florence and rich cultural history. "Buffalo Soldiers" -- U.S. Army units manned entirely by blacks except for white senior officers -- are confronting battle-hardened and combat-weary Germans in December 1944.

McBride's descriptions of the almost unnavigable, myth-infested Apuane Alps -- terrain as beautiful as it is unbearable -- are seething poetry. His reconstruction of history -- from Florentine politics and tribalism to marble quarrying and sculpture -- are masterful. Both the modern and ancient material in the book, McBride declares in a note, were drawn from historical accounts and interviews with participants -- "real events and real people."

McBride's narrative voice speaks from an omniscient vantage -- penetrating and expressing the major characters' consciousness, sensations of being. Much of that involves awful pain and fear, relieved fleetingly by unconsciousness or by death. Four American soldiers and a handful of Italians are central to the story.

Sam Train is an illiterate giant of a man drafted into the Army from a life as a mule driver on a sharecropped farm in the South. Although utterly naive, Train is full of humanity -- strengths and doubts and depths that McBride brings alive almost magically.

A central element of the story is Train's saving a 6-year-old Italian boy who speaks not a word of English, and the love that develops between them despite not knowing a single word of each other's language. McBride brings eloquently, convincingly alive this wordless child. As he does the others, including, most entertainingly, Bishop Cummings -- an unordained, nonbelieving preacher from St. Louis, a cardsharp, a con man who is an ironic, worldly wise foil to Train's almost saintly simplicity.

Over a span of 1,200 years, the history of the village of Bornacchi -- which had 32 residents in World War II -- is retold neatly in two pages. Conquerors took the village and then were conquered by the vanquished. Most of the battles were rapacious slaughters. McBride then writes this passage, which suggests -- to my eye and ear, anyway -- the brilliance of his command of language, image, fact and time throughout the book:

"The four groups, Ligurians, Lucchesians, Pisans, and Florentines, settled in the valley around the town's walls and argued for eighty-seven years about who owned what and where until Napoleon arrived in 1799 and beat the blubber out of everybody. The town sat, indifferent, for 122 years, until 1921," when it was rebuilt. Then came the Fascists. "In short, the town has known pain, glory, suffering, pity, self-sacrifice, grief, jealousy, murder, mayhem, peace, war, grapes, wine and wisdom, but it had never known the smell of good ol' stinkin' fried rabbit cooked Kansas City-style by a smooth-talking fatback lover named Bishop Cummings, who was called Walking Thunder back home at the First Baptist Saving Souls Center."

McBride's empathy for his fellow human is as affecting as the poetry of his prose. He makes his reader -- this reader, most surely -- feel the pain, terror, anguish, self-doubt of his characters.

His reportorial skills -- he has been a staff writer for The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and People magazine -- complement his artistry at character development. Obviously drawing on painstaking research, McBride weaves together intricate, awful detail about the devastation of World War II in Italy. The fluency of his dialogue and his capacity to put into words the sounds and rhythms of battles and folk songs seem to draw on musical experience -- he plays jazz saxophone and has written many songs and a jazz / pop musical, Bobos.

As the story moves forward, Sam Train becomes increasingly devoted to the child he saved from German fire, slowly bringing him back to life and awareness. At one point, "Train leaned forward and he and the boy stared at each other. All his life, for twenty-one years, Train realized, he'd never owned anything, and here this boy was offering him his heart. He could see it. No one had ever offered him anything in the world. The world was a confusing place."

Taking care of the boy, Train feels a growing and then explosive sense of the power of love, which convinces him that the boy is literally an angel: "It was this child of innocence," McBride writes, "a child who had survived a massacre, a miracle boy who represented everything that every Italian held dear, the power to love, unconditionally, forever, to forgive, to live after the worst of atrocities, and, most of all, the power to believe in God's miracles."

Finishing reading Miracle at St. Anna, I found it a searingly, soaringly beautiful novel. Some may argue that the epilog, which brings the story sharply back to the present, does so perhaps a trifle too cleverly. That was not the case for me. I found it crisp and free of sentimentality.

The book's central theme, its essence, is a celebration of the human capacity for love. Even in the course of virtually unbearable warfare and deprivation, -- with carnage and devastation, hunger and hopelessness blotting out all other realities -- people are able to touch each other, to care. That, McBride insists, is the enduring, immortal miracle of the human race, for all its imperfections.

If you finish reading Miracle at St. Anna without weeping -- first painfully, tragically, then finally with great liberating joy -- it may be that you need a heart transplant.

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