Polenta–poisoned and poignant
Among a blog reader’s recommendations for Mary Doria Russell books, Thread of Grace would not have been my first choice. I was not eager to revisit my extensive early research on Nazi Germany, nor the experiences of Jews during the end of WWII. But again I was caught up in Russell’s storytelling–a wryness that endows historical happenings with immediacy through telling details and multiple viewpoints. News of inhuman cruelties strikes with a raw and wrenching freshness. I cheered the Italian priest who refused absolution for the German confessor, and was humbled by the Italian rabbi who asked if the priest doubted his savior’s ability to forgive these sins.
After Italy surrendered to the Allies, she was immediately occupied by Germans–bringing chaos to the Jews who lived there and those who fled occupied France thinking Italy would now be safely protected by Allied forces. Italian soldiers, relieved to finally be home, were rounded up for German work teams. From farm mothers to veterans, nuns to bureaucrats, the Italian Resistance proved its creativity, its courage and stamina, its humanity. None of this did I know before reading Russell’s story. After reading it, I won’t forget.
Choosing favorites among the large cast of characters is difficult, but I throw my flowers at Renzo Leoni and his mother, Lidia.A grandmother partisan who is too busy helping refugees to clean her house–“Let Mussolini clean it!” surely won my heart. Vaclav Havel wrote that “defiance is not undertaken for its own sake but because people cannot exist in the absence of hope,” and Lidia embodies Havel’s perception. ‘Resistance is Fertile’ because it plants those seeds of hope. And what is more hopeful than a sense of humor? I can’t resist a character who proclaims that ten percent of any group–Jews, Germans, Catholics, Communists–is comprised of shitheads; one who asserts that Jews are simply members of the human race, and then adds, “I can think of no worse insult.”
Russell’s story is so real, in fact, that I was grateful for the extra distance provided by her frame–a prelude and postlude each a generation removed from the events of these two years. The Preludio set up one of the subtly-revealed messages of the story, explaining one man’s singularly false but optimistic answer to his own overwhelming fears. This man never directly participates in the story itself, but his answer reverberates later in a drunken philosophical discussion, as two veterans discuss why young men love war. “In peace, there a hundred questions with a thousand answers! In war, there is only one big question with one right answer.” A back cover blurb from author/editor Susan Cahill calls the novel’s ending ‘perhaps the most moving coda in fictional history’, but I leave that for readers to journey toward on their own.