'Thread' weaves a complicated story

February 20, 2005|By A.J. Sherman | A.J. Sherman,Special to the Sun

A Thread of Grace

By Mary Doria Russell. Random House. 448 pages. $25.95.

In an appendix to this novel, the author, who previously published two works of science fiction, confides that she writes "what I don't know, and what I want to learn about," adding that she likes "to get every miserable little detail right." Although she tells us she is Italian by origin, a convert to Judaism and an academic, a paleoanthropologist, Mary Doria Russell was unaware before beginning her project that significant numbers of Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy.

Exploring why, she has set her story in Northern Italy toward the end of World War II, relying on historical studies, memoirs and interviews with survivors, partisans and rescuers.

The novel's leading characters are drawn freely from the lives of real individuals, whose stories of survival through guile, courage and luck have been published in books the author acknowledges. She has enlisted the assistance of Alfred Feldman, a refugee whose vivid memoir, One Step Ahead, is the source for one of her principal plot lines.

The result, alas, is not a satisfying whole, rather like a cake that's baked by combining several recipes. The author is defeated partly by the innate complexity of the military, political and social situation in Italy, but mostly by her fascination with too many stories, her inability to leave some research on the cutting-room floor.

Russell certainly has chosen a dramatic subject and moment in history. When German troops overran Italy, after the collapse of Mussolini's regime in September 1943, even assimilated Italian Jews found themselves in grave danger, as did all foreign-born Jews.

Some were able to find compassionate rescuers; frequently individual priests or nuns, peasants in the countryside or simply neighbors. There were those who betrayed or hunted Jews down; but ordinary Italians often behaved with simple decency, many with courageous generosity. As the Allied armies fought slowly north, encountering stubborn German resistance, civilians were frequently caught in the crossfire. Retreating Germans harried by partisan groups routinely responded with savage reprisals. Partisans and refugees alike had to fear German searches, Fascist sympathizers, aerial bombardment and severe mountain weather.

This is complicated enough, yet the reader is required also to distinguish among a large, shifting cast of characters, some speaking crude versions of dialect, many changing identities to escape detection. There are Italian Jews of several classes; Jewish refugees from occupied Europe; Catholic clergy; mountain peasants; Fascists and Communists; a whore with a heart of gold; a predictably imperious contessa. Even when disguised, these creations seem more believable than the Germans, an entire bestiary of one-dimensional baddies, including SS sadists, Hitler-besotted hausfraus, careerist thugs and an improbable alcoholic deserter.

Scenes are breathless, rapidly intercut: a desperate flight across the Alps, bombings, ambushes, deceptions, torture, primitive surgery, childbirth, even doomed love inspired by Romeo and Juliet.

We are spared no detail, from the look of spattered brains and burnt vehicles to the engine that powered an Italian bomber in the campaign against Abyssinia. As incident is piled on incident, story lines submerging and abruptly reappearing, human beastliness and nobility juxtaposed, we want to cry, "Enough already!"

There was indeed a story to be told here, but this is not the way. Real life always trumps fiction, especially of the less-skilled variety.

A.J. Sherman, a philanthropic consultant and writer, lives in Vermont. His latest book is Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948.

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