Mary Doria Russell’s
A Thread of Grace
(Ballantine Books 2005)
Seldom do I write and post a review of a work of fiction. But there have been exceptions. Now comes another exception: Mary Doria Russell’s “A Thread of Grace” (Ballantine Books, 2005).
Why this exception? Because it is not often that a book explores the envelope of human behavior, and thus human nature, like this one does. I am not just talking about the depths of goodness and the heights of evil, or vice versa, by showing us very bad and very good people in some struggle, with triumph of one or the other as the outcome. I am talking about exploring that depth-height envelope as it exists within the same individual, based on piecing together the deeds and experiences of real characters to a large extent. So the characters are credibly like all of us.
I was touched by this book, mostly in a very agreeable way, but at times also in a way I found rather disagreeable because it hit close to home. It showed me some truths about post-World War II survivors’ histories that I was busy denying to myself.
The book begins with an unusual insight into Hitler’s origins, and ends with a startlingly unsettling insight into his legacy. If I quote and discuss it here, it takes away from your reading experience, so I won’t.
Same with the story and its settings and characters, you need to discover them for yourself, as information is fed to you slowly by the author, in order to really appreciate these people within this work of art. It is a work of art not only in terms of language, descriptions, and dialogues, but also in the way it involves you, the reader, in riding along on the stream of consciousness of the characters, and the ride can end abruptly when that consciousness ends.
In between its beginning and ending it describes a complex mix of peoples. Many common Italians are shown in a very positive light, they were 'powerless' peasants eking out a hardscrabble living, threatened with life and freedom by very powerful forces if they disobeyed in any way. But disobey they did, and in heroic proportions.
We would like to think, from this safe distance in time, that they were common human beings and made obvious decision when the call came to choose between their safety and their humanity. But they were really quite uncommon. I never knew they had harbored so many of their own, Italian, as well as foreign refugee, Jews, and at such great peril to themselves! Many suffered severely and died for the humanity they showed their fellow men and women.
The book is well-founded fiction, based on years of research and interviews leading to fictional characters that may individually assume the characteristics and reflect the experiences of several real people.
None of the characters, like real people, come close to being perfect. But many became role models, poster children for humanity, for at least a portion of their lives! I loved some of these characters, and suffered as they suffered and was sad when they died. This is story-telling at its best.
I am not a fan of World War II books. Or any war books. But reading Mary Doria Russel’s first two books, “The Sparrow” and
“Children of God,” masterfully conceived and written science- fiction with an intriguing anthropological touch, made me into a fan of this author, so I tried this book.
I ended up racing through it because I got involved in the lives being described. Then when it was done I was sorry I had raced through it.
Russell avoided doing what I expected her to do for much of the book. She did not create the romantic liaisons I fully expected along the way, but took what I felt to be a very realistic path through the mindless violence of a land with a retreating occupier that slaughtered those who were found disobedient to, or simply seemed to take lightly, their authority in any way. This was so right to the very end of the occupation, when they had clearly lost the war and were in full retreat.
It is difficult to describe how it made me feel when unexpected deaths destroyed people I was sure would survive, and people I was sure would die survived. It made the tale a realistic reflection of the chaos that reigned at the end of the war and, surprisingly, at the start of the peace when the violence continued for a time with a disturbingly similar disregard for facts and justice, it had simply changed hands and victims.
I really respected the author’s staying with what was undoubtedly a horror story to those actually involved. But humanity, compassion, and love are sprinkled liberally through all this pain, making a very full display of the many facets of human nature. Russell brings us a grand bouquet of humanity, with stinky- as well as sweet-smelling flowers, sometimes grafted onto the same stem, making it a heart-affecting (both warming and rending) story.
Near the end the book grabbed some of my own assumptions and romantic fantasies about life and human nature and shredded them. It was like I was lightly slapped in the face when a central character said about his experience during this time and in this place that "life here has been amputated." It was the kind of slap that did not hurt, but fixed your attention.
That phrase is one I had thought, but never spoken, about some of my close relatives who experienced this terrible war: their lives were negatively affected ever after, it was like a piece of their ability to enjoy life was amputated. Joy was forever out of their reach it seemed. Deep seated distrust of fellow humans seemed common among those who fought to survive in the occupied countries during this war.
Fear of malicious motives in others stunted the potential experience of love and other possibly positive experiences with others that make normal lives so rich, and could have expanded their lives. Some experienced such suffering, without any support, that they lost their ability to feel genuine sympathy for the sufferings of others, especially within their own families.
So, the mere mention of “amputated” life caused this constellation of associations to surface in
me, and sure enough, an example came up in Russell’s book that illustrated several of these
impressions. Russell, on her pages 425 and 426 haunted me by saying in the context of people
with war-amputated lives raising children after the war that: "Their children and grandchildren are
fulfillment of Ezekiel's prophecy that the dry bones shall live again, but the poison still seeps
down, contaminating generations."
And there you have it. Parents (including mine) who survived this war and lived wonderful, but definitely partly amputated, lives, are passing on because of age. My fantasy was that with their passing, this tragic, life-joy robbing, lingering disease that was caused by this war would pass out of this world.
But Russell’s description of a family of survivors really hit home. I recognized my own family to an unsettling extent in that family, and I realized she was right, I was wrong: to a significant extent amputated lives indeed passed like bad genetic traits to the next generation. Like any other genetic disease, it manifests itself differently in terms of both symptom and degree in the affected individuals. It is fading, sure, but has been passed on, and to the extent it is restricting lives of this second generation of parents it will be passed on again.
It was silly of me to think that the post-war traumatic effects of this war were any different from the effects of other past and current wars, of course. No doubt this is true of all wars and all desperate suffering that leads one to see the universe as unsafe, unfair and extremely cruel. And the carriers of this danger, unfairness, and cruelty? More often than not it is fellow humans, and as a consequence life is amputated once more, for generations to come.
So the bottom line is that I loved this book, I loved many of its characters, and I learned something from it, about myself and my own emotional inheritance. What I learned was sobering and not pleasant. A truth hidden in fiction! Is that allowed?
I recommend this book to anyone wishing to expand their appreciation of the breadth, depth and height of human nature. No matter how you feel about Italians before reading this book, you will be very proud of them after reading this book.
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