Mary Doria Russell

A Thread of Grace

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A Thread of Grace Summary

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A Thread of Grace (2005), a historical novel by American novelist Mary Doria Russell, tells the story of a network of Italian citizens who helped save the lives of more than 40,000 European Jews during the waning months of World War II. Though the book is written as a novel, Russell said in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, “Trust me: the most unbelievable things I write about are directly from interviews I did with rescuers and survivors and veterans.”

Following a brief prelude from 1907 Austria that checks in on Adolf Hitler in his youth, the book jumps forward to Italy in September of 1943 or, in the parlance of the Fascist state, “Anno Facista XXII.” Two months earlier, Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini had surrendered to Allied Forces. Paradoxically, however, this meant that Jews were no longer under Mussolini’s protection from the Nazis. Therefore, Jews who lived in areas that had been occupied by the Italian army now fled their villages across the Alps to Northern Italy, looking for refuge. Russell writes that Italian families provided refuge and safe passage for upwards of 43,000 Jews between September 1943 and May 1945, the month the Allies finally claimed victory against the Axis Powers in Europe.

From there, the author checks in on various Italian families who are either Jewish themselves or provided shelter and safety for Jewish refugees. Renzo Leoni is a former pilot for the Italian Royal Air Force who escaped five plane wrecks during his various tours of duty in the war. His mother, Lidia, is Jewish, and although she brought her children to Torah Talmud classes, she also sent them to Catholic Schools. Their story illustrates the uncertainty surrounding the fate of Jews in Italy. While Renzo drinks merrily with his Nazi buddy Dr. Schramm, Renzo’s brother-in-law, Tranquillo Loeb, chastises him for not being more worried about the safety of their family. Loeb plans to flee to Switzerland, while Renzo and Lidia dismiss his concerns, rejecting Loeb’s invitation to accompany him to exile.

Angelo Soncini’s father, a rabbi, has exiled himself to live with an aunt. Meanwhile, Angelo’s mother, Mirella, is harboring Jewish refugees from Germany and Poland. Russell portrays many of the differences in custom between Italian Jews and the Jews of other parts of Europe. She also describes the way in which loyalists to the deposed leader Mussolini are willing to help Jewish refugees in order to spite the Nazis. For example, a public servant named Serafino Brizzolari gives Mirella an envelope full of ration cards, instructing her to sell them in order to raise money in case she needs it when German soldiers come to inspect her home.

Russell begins to show the various connections between the characters that have been introduced. For example, Brizzolari was responsible for sending ten anti-Fascist Jews to prison according to a decree by Mussolini. He intended to send Loeb, who had spread his share of anti-Fascist rhetoric. However, Renzo, out of respect for his sister who is married to Loeb, offered to go to jail in Loeb’s place. Don Osvaldo, a priest at Basilica San Giovanni Battista in Porto Sant’Andrea, Italy is introduced.

Next, the action jumps to Valdottavo, which is located in the Italian Alps in Northern Italy. Claudette and Albert Blum are a Jewish couple hiding in a charcoal-maker’s shack. After hiding there for a week, they discover that somebody has left them a pair of apples on a nearby rock. They cautiously collect and eat the apples, anxiously aware that somebody else knows they are hiding. Each day, they find more and more food and gifts on the rock, including pears, cheese, mushrooms, and a warm cape.

Returning to Porto Sant’Andrea, the narrative checks in on Dr. Schramm and Renzo. Schramm is dying of tuberculosis and Renzo, despite being Jewish and despite having many different ideas about religion and philosophy, does want he can to help his friend. The following month, Renzo and his friend Osvaldo travel to the Valdottavo area to distribute cash and aid to the thousand or so Jews hiding there in the mountains. When questioned by German police, they pretend to be Sicilian milk truckers traveling to offer aid to Italian orphans. Over the winter, Renzo also helps smuggle Schramm to the mountains in the hope that it might cure his tuberculosis.

After a hard winter, the story checks in on Schramm, Renzo, Lidia, and Mirella, all of whom are living in the mountains. Schramm’s health has improved under Mirella’s care. Renzo wants to marry Mirella, but she decides that after years of being married to a rabbi, she enjoys the solitude of a simple mountain peasant life.

By helping Jews in need, the characters all achieve a sense of personal absolution for their sins. Renzo, guilty over the atrocities he committed in the Abyssinian War, attains a measure of peace. As does Dr. Schramm, who feels enormous guilt over the part he played in Nazi atrocities against Jews during the war.