Sort of related, I promise: I unashamedly love zombie movies. They fascinate and terrify me. And after years of watching them, I’ve learned to go in with the expectation that everyone dies. Under no circumstances am I to get too attached to the characters or root too hard for my favorites, for therein lies only disappointment.
Likewise, any discerning person knows not to get involved in a World War II story without a strong dose of expectation that most of the characters will die, be terrorized, or otherwise have a really shit time. You know to not get too attached to them, and under no circumstances to root too hard for your favorites—you’ll almost surely be heartbroken. I went in, knowing this, gradually let my guard down, and got emotionally destroyed.
A Thread of Grace tells the story of many fictional people living in Northern Italy near the end of World War II, between Italy’s surrender from the Axis powers to the liberation of Italy two years later. The story follows several individuals and families whose experiences bring them together at times—the Thread of Grace—through the last few years of the war. It’s fascinating from a historical point of view. I’m a bit of a D-Day geek, but I didn’t know, for example, that Southern France was occupied by Italian soldiers who were basically protecting entire towns of Jewish refugees. Germans told the Italians to get rid of the “undesirables,” and the Italians basically gave the Germans the bureaucratic run-around saying they didn’t have the proper paperwork. It worked, until Eisenhower announced Italy’s surrender an entire two weeks before he was supposed to. So the Italian soldiers and the mostly-Jewish refugees fled, together, over the freaking Alps into Italy, the soldiers helping the refugees along the way, so they all made it together.
The book starts out pretty lovely that way—flawed people of many faiths, nationalities, and backgrounds helping each other, working together, and taking risks to stand up against those who are wrong, and for those who need it. The Mary Doria Russel did a lot of research on the real people of rural Northern Italy to flesh out her fictional characters, and she found that the vast majority helped the refugees without question, at great personal risk. Not helping wasn’t even a consideration. It’s hopeful and beautiful.
But then these exceptional humans just get completely fucked by the war, and even our favorites, even the ones who survive, don’t get a happy ending.
Even so, this is the book for you, if you like history or World War II or bittersweet stories of kindness and heroism. It is well-researched and beautifully written, and tells a part of the story we don’t often hear. Our heroes are complicated and imperfect, but ultimately lovely. Get as attached as your heart will allow, and remember again the reasons the war was terrible, and why we can’t let it happen again.