One really could never accuse Mary Doria Russell of not being diverse as a writer. I first read her science-fiction duology “The Sparrow/Children of God;” which explores issues of culture and religion through the story of a Jesuit first-contact space mission. Then I read “Doc,” an historical Western centered on Doc Holliday. Now – “Thread of Grace” – a WWII novel.
The story centers on a less-well-known aspect of the war – Jewish refugees fleeing ahead of the Nazi occupation, entering Italy, and being aided by anti-fascist Italian partisans. At first it seems as if the book will be the story of teenage Jewish girl Claudette Blum and her budding romance with an Italian soldier who helps her and her grandfather – but the scope of the book quickly widens and encompasses a large number of different characters. In the end, the most memorable might be the alcoholic veteran & former flying ace Renzo Leoni, and his interactions with the Nazi deserter Doktor Schramm.
The book is historically fascinating & definitely well written and well-researched – but I couldn’t help feeling that the plot was a little unfocused. Also, all the Italians are portrayed as virtually saintly. (In her afterword, Russell defends this choice, but I do think it weakened the book a little.) Themes include morality and forgiveness… and as one might assume from the setting, don’t expect too much upbeat cheeriness.