Having read Mary Doria Russell’s previous books, The Sparrow and Children of God, I was glad to find another book by her on the library shelves. (Though I have to admit I did not check it out the first time I saw it – I knew from her other books that it would be very well-written but also suspected it would be emotionally pummeling at times.)
It is quite a change from the science fiction of the other books, though unlike most science fiction those have as much philosophy as science, and reflect Russell’s background as an anthropologist (she creates entire civilizations to populate a faraway planet). I enjoy historical fiction, and this novel explores an aspect of World War II that I have read little about if at all previously.
Like the science fiction novels, A Thread of Grace deals with ethical issues in difficult situations, but here the context deals not with cross-cultural misunderstandings but with the people of occupied Italy having to decide whether to risk their lives (and their families and even their neighbors) to hide Jewish refugees.
I have read numerous books that describe people hiding Jews in other countries occupied by Germany, but I had never realized that tens of thousands of Jews sought refuge in northern Italy. Nor had it occurred to me that hiding Jews might be the action not of just a few brave individuals there but the resolute determination of entire rural communities.
Russell’s large cast of characters helps emphasize the number and variety of people involved, both the refugees and those who helped them. But it does make it hard to keep track of who is who. By somewhere in the middle of the book I could keep most of the main characters straight, but even at the end there were a few I tended to mix up.
They are a very interesting group of people, though how true-to-life I can’t say, One review does criticize the novel for being “a bit heavy on ‘types’ familiar from World War II movies: the selfless religious, the noble peasant, the apparent cynic who is a secret hero, and so forth.” No doubt all those types were present in real life, though perhaps not as readily recognizable as such as in books and movies.
Since writing this novel, Russell has written three other historical novels, one set at the end of WWI, and two set in the American West, about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. I have never had nearly as much interest in novels set in the West as I do those set in Europe, but since these are written by Russell, I will have to check them out.