three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
user_rating: 
0

A-ThreadGraceAuthor of The Sparrow (1996) and Children of God (1998), Russell has returned after a seven-year hiatus, swapping her trademark science fiction for the real-world horrors of World War II in this work of historical fiction. Set in northwest Italy during the last years of the war, the novel centers on one community’s courageous resistance under German occupation. A Catholic priest, a Nazi deserter, German officers, and Jewish refugees all suffer personal dramas as history unfolds. Thread of Grace, based on five years of research, questions the horror of human capacity for evil while celebrating the compassion of the Italian citizens who saved 43,000 Jews by the end of the war.
Random House. 448 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0375501843

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Russell has succeeded in vividly and memorably evoking the hardships, dangers, sufferings and sorrows of wartime life in Nazi-occupied Italy in a somber, profoundly moving book that engages the heights and depths of human experience."
Merle Rubin

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
"… a feat of storytelling, ugly, and beautiful. It is also an important book. It needs to be widely read." Joanna Rose

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] densely populated, well-plotted novel … thick with intersecting plots and characters—most of them both colorful and memorable. … Russell reportedly mirrored the role of chance in wartime survival by flipping a coin to decide which of her own characters would live or die." Melinda Bargreen

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Russell’s characters were slow to come to life, and dialogue in the opening chapters was stiff. But as the pages rolled by, her people did come to life, without exception becoming more complex and more interesting. The writing, too, began to strike sparks." Mark Johnson

Plain Dealer 2 of 5 Stars
"A Thread of Grace is labeled a novel, but if it is, it is a novel without a plot. … The greatest disappointment in this deeply felt and compellingly written book is that it didn’t show what made these people risk their lives to protect strangers."
John R. Alden

Critical Summary

In Thread of Grace, Russell—a Roman Catholic of Italian heritage who converted to Judaism—explores Italy’s response to German occupation, the fate of its Jews, and the actions of individuals. The story, which shifts to different (and sometimes unrelated) characters and subplots, alienated a few critics. Most, however, found that the depth of characterization forged a cohesive narrative and created complex layers of emotion, history, and horror that aptly represent wartime. Reviewers also forgave the ambiguous motives that seemed to drive the characters, who exhibit extreme behavior, from selfless to evil. Yet, by the end, readers will understand the old Hebrew saying, "No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace."

Supplemental Reading

Benevolence and Betrayal Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism | Alexander Stille (1991): Russell cited this nonfiction account of the Italian Holocaust, told through personal stories, as her inspiration for Thread of Grace.

The Battle for Rome The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope | Robert Katz (2003): Katz provides an excellent history from the fall of Mussolini to the Allied Liberation.