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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Set in Italy during the dramatic finale of World War II, this new novel is the first in seven years by the bestselling author of The Sparrow and Children of God.

It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to be safe at last, now that the Italians have broken with Germany and made a separate peace with the Allies. The Blums will soon discover that Italy is anything but peaceful, as it becomes overnight an open battleground among the Nazis, the Allies, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive.

Mary Doria Russell sets her first historical novel against this dramatic background, tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty-three thousand Jews during the war’s final phase. The result of five years of meticulous research, A Thread of Grace is an ambitious, engrossing novel of ideas, history, and marvelous characters that will please Russell’s many fans and earn her even more.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Greater Italy 1943 Anno Fascista XXII


8 September 1943

Porto Sant’Andrea, Liguria Northwestern Coast of Italy

A simple answer to a simple question. That’s all Werner Schramm requires.

“Where’s the church?” he yells, belligerent and sick—sicker yet when his shout becomes a swampy cough.

A small crowd gathers to appreciate the spectacle: a Waffen-SS officer, thin, fortyish, and liquored up. He props his hands against his knees, coughing harder. “La basilica!” he gasps, remembering the Italian. “San Giovanni—dove è?”

A young woman points. He catches the word campanile, and straightens, careful of his chest. Spotting the bell tower above a tumble of rooftops that stagger toward the sea, he turns to thank her. Everyone is gone.

No matter. Downhill is the path of least resistance for a man who’s drunk himself legless. Nearer the harbor, the honeyed light of the Italian Riviera gilds wrecked warehouses and burnt piers, but there’s not much bomb damage inland. No damned room for an explosion, Schramm thinks.

Jammed between the Mediterranean and the mountains, the oldest part of Porto Sant’Andrea doesn’t even have streets—just carrugi: passages barely wide enough for medieval carts. Cool and shadowy even at noon, these masonry ravines wind past the cobblers’ and barbers’ shops, apothecaries, vegetable stands, and cafés wedged at random between blank-walled town houses with shuttered windows.

Glimpses of the bell tower provide a sense of direction, but Schramm gets lost twice before stumbling into a sunny little piazza. He scowls at the light, sneezes, wipes his watering eyes. “Found you!” he tells the Basilica di San Giovanni Battista. “Tried t’hide, but it didn’ work!”

San Giobatta, the locals call this place, as though John the Baptist were a neighborhood boy, poor and charmless but held in great affection. Squatting on a granite platform, the dumpy little church shares its modest courtyard with an equally unimpressive rectory and convent, their builder’s architectural ambition visibly tempered by parsimony. Broad stripes of cheap black sandstone alternate with grudgingly thin layers of white Carrara marble. The zebra effect is regrettable.

Ineffective sandbags surround the church, its southeast corner freshly crumpled and blackened by an Allied incendiary bomb. A mob of pigeons waddle through the rubble, crapping and cooing. “The pope speaks lovely German,” Schramm informs them. “Nuncio to Berlin before he got his silly hat. Perhaps I ought to go to Rome and confess to Papa Pacelli!”

He laughs at his own impertinence, and pays for it with another coughing fit. Eyes watering, hands trembling, he drops onto the basilica staircase and pulls out the battered flask he keeps topped up and nestled near his heart. He takes small sips until brandy calms the need to cough, and the urge to flee.

Prepared now, he stands. Squares his shoulders. Advances resolutely on massive doors peopled with bronzed patriarchs and tarnished virgins. Curses with surprise when they won’t yield to his tug. “I want a pries’!” he yells, rapping on the door, first with his knuckles and then more insistently with the butt of his Luger.

Creaking hinges reveal the existence of a little wooden side door. A middle-aged nun appears, her sleeves shoved into rubber gauntlets, her habit topped by a grimy apron. Frowning at the noise, she is short and shaped like a beer keg. Her starched white wimple presses pudgy cheeks toward a nose that belongs on a propaganda Jew.

Christ, you’re homely.

Schramm wipes his mouth on his sleeve, wondering if he has spoken aloud. For years, words have threatened to pour out, like blood from his throat. He fears hemorrhage.

Shivering in the heat, he makes a move toward the door. The nun bars his way. “La chiesa è chiusa!” she says, but Schramm pushes past her.

The baptistry reeks of carbolic, incense, explosives, and charred stone. Three novices scour its limestone floor. The prettiest sits on her heels, her face smudged with soot from the firebomb’s damage. Calmly, she studies the Luger dangling in this German’s right hand. Behind him, Sister Beer Keg snaps her fingers. Eyes drop. Work resumes.

Schramm shoves the pistol into its holster, pulls off his campaign cap, and rubs a sweaty palm over cropped brown hair. The nave is empty apart from a single man who ambles down the center aisle, neck cranked back like a cormorant’s, hands clasped loosely behind his back. This personage studies the swirling seraphim and whey-faced saints above, himself an allegorical portrait come to life: Unconcern in a Silver-Gray Suit.

Distracted by the tourist, Schramm takes a step toward the confessionals and trips over a bucket of water. “Scheisse,” he swears, hopping away from the spill.

“Basta!” the fat nun declares, pulling him toward the door.

“Io need ein padre!” he insists, but his Italian is two decades old—the fading souvenir of a year in Florence. The Beer Keg shakes her head. Standing his ground, Schramm points at a confessional. “Un padre, understand?”

“La chiesa è chiusa!”

“I know the church is closed! But I need—”

“A strong black coffee?” the tourist suggests pleasantly. His German is Tyrolean, but there’s no mistaking the graceful confidence of an Italian male who employs a superb tailor. “A medical officer!” he says, noting the insignia on Schramm’s collar. “You speak the language of Dante most vigorously, Herr Doktor, but the people of this region generally use a Ligurian dialect, not the classical Italian you are—”

“Butchering,” Schramm supplies, with flat accuracy.

“Striving for, one might have said. With your permission, I can explain to Suora Marta that you’re seeking a priest who speaks German.”

Schramm listens hard, but their dialect is as thick as an Austrian’s head, and he gives up until the tourist translates. “Suora tells me Archbishop Tirassa’s assistant speaks excellent German. Confessions, however, will not be heard again until Saturday.” When Schramm begins to protest, the Italian holds up a conciliatory hand. “I shall point out that in time of war, the angel of death is more capricious than usual. Preparation for his arrival should not be delayed.”

The man’s voice becomes a soothing melody of persuasion and practicality. Schramm watches Suora Marta’s face. She reminds him of his mother’s sister, a Vincentian nun equally short and dumpy and ugly. “Like Papa used t’say, ‘Christ’ll take what nobody else wants.’ ”

“And so there is hope, even for pigs like you,” the nun replies.

Schramm’s jaw drops. A stunned laugh escapes his interpreter. Eyes fearlessly on Schramm’s own, Suora Marta removes her rubber gloves and apron. Without hurry, she untucks her habit, straightens her gown, folds her outer sleeves back to the proper cuff length. Hands sliding beneath her scapular, she gives Schramm one last dirty look before gliding away with chubby dignity.

Schramm tips a mouthful of brandy down his throat. “Verdammte Scheisse! Why didn’ you tell me she speaks German?”

“I didn’t know! As a general rule, however, courtesy has much to recommend it in any language. This is a small port, but many of us have a working knowledge of German,” the man continues, deflecting the conversation ever so slightly. “We’ve done a fair amount of business with Venezia Giulia since 1918—. Pardon! No doubt you would call the region Adriatisches Küstenland.”

“Mus’ cost a fortune for new stationery every time the border moves,” Schramm remarks, offering the brandy.

“Printers always prosper.” The Italian raises the flask in salute and takes a healthy swallow. “If you won’t be needing me anymore . . . ?”

Schramm nods, and the man strolls off toward an alcove, pausing to admire a fresco of the Last Judgment that Schramm himself finds unnecessarily vivid. Searching for a place to sit, Schramm gets a fix on some pews near the confessionals, takes another sip from the flask. “No retreat!” he declares. Probably aloud.

The tourist’s slow circuit of the church is punctuated by murmurs of dismay. A fifteenth-century baptismal font is damaged. A colorful jumble of shattered glass lies beneath a blown-out window. “Verdamm’ Tommies,” Schramm mutters. “British claim’re only bombing military sites, but Hamburg is rubble! Dehousing the workers, that’s what they call it. Terrorflieger, we call it. Leverkusen, München. Köln, Düsseldorf. Rubble, all of them! Did you know that?”

“We hear only rumor these days, even with the change in government,” the Italian replies, declining comment on Mussolini’s recent fall from power.

Schramm waves his flask at the damage before taking another pull. “RAF pilots’re so fugging inaggurate—” Schramm tries again. “They are so . . . fucking . . . inaccurate.” Satisfied with his diction, he swivels his head in the direction of his new friend. “They call it a hit if they aim at a dock and smash a church!”

“Very sloppy,” the Italian agrees. “A shocking lack of professional pride!”

Slack-jawed, Schramm’s skull tips back of its own accord. He stares at the painted angels wheeling above him until his hands lose track of what they’re supposed to be doing and the flask slips from his fingers. He aims his eyes at the floor, where the last of the liquor is pooling. “Tha’s a pity,” he mourns. Laboriously, he lifts first one foot and then the other onto the pew, sliding down until he is prone. “Fat ol’ nun,” he mutters. Pro’ly never committed a sin in her whole life . . .

A sharp noise awakens him. Coughing and crapulous, Schramm struggles to sit up. His confessor hasn’t arrived, but chunks of stone have been neatly stacked by the door. Sweeping shards of colored glass into a pile, the Italian flirts gallantly with the novices. The pretty one flirts back, dimpling when she smiles.

Schramm slumps over the back of the pew in front of him, cushioning his brow on folded arms. “I’m going to be sick,” he warns a little too loudly.

The Italian snaps his fingers. “Suora Fossette! The bucket!” The newly christened Sister Dimples scrambles to deliver it, and only just in time. “Allow me,” the gentleman says, courteous as a headwaiter while Schramm pukes into the dirty water.

Swiping at his watering eyes with trembling hands, Schramm accepts the proffered handkerchief. “Touris’, translator . . . now you’re a nurse!”

“A man of endless possibilities!” the Italian declares, setting the bucket aside.

He has a face off a fresco: bent-nosed and bony, but with a benign expression. Old enough to be tolerantly amused by another’s disgrace. Someone who might understand . . . Schramm wants to tell this kindly stranger everything, but all that comes out is “I was tryin’ t’make things better.”

“Always a mistake,” the Italian remarks. “Where are you staying, Oberstabsarzt? Would you like to come back another day?”

Schramm shakes his head stubbornly. “’Dammte Schpageddi-Fresser. Italians’re always late! Where is that shit of a priest?”

“Lie down, Herr Doktor.” Schramm feels his legs lifted onto the pew. “Rest your eyes. The priest will come, and then we’ll get you back where you belong.”

“No, thank you,” Schramm says firmly. “Hell exists, you know. Any combat soldier can tell you that.” The other man stops moving. “I knew you’d un’erstan’! So heaven’s real, too! Logic, ja?”

Their moment of communion is over. “I myself am not a devout Catholic,” the Samaritan informs him regretfully. “My opinions about heaven and hell needn’t trouble you.”

“Righ’ . . . righ’.” Almost asleep, Schramm mumbles, “You’re not a bad fellow . . .”

Moments later, he is snoring like a tank engine, and does not hear the hoot of delighted laughter that echoes through the basilica. “Did you hear that, Sisters?” his intepreter asks. “The Nazi says I’m not a bad fellow!”

“For a spaghetti chomper,” Suora Fossette amends solemnly.

Musical giggles are quickly stifled when swift footsteps and whispering fabric announce a priest’s approach. “Grüss Gott, mein Herr,” he says, shooting a stern look at the novices. “I am Osvaldo Tomitz, secretary to His Excellency Archbishop Tirassa.”

“Don Osvaldo! Piacere: a pleasure to meet you!” says a well-dressed civilian. “I’m Renzo Leoni.”

Tomitz’s confusion is plain. Suora Marta undoubtedly told him that the man wishing to confess is an obnoxious German drunk. “How may I be of service to you, signor?”

“Ah, but I am not the one who sought your services, Don Osvaldo.” Leading the way toward the confessionals, Leoni presents a Waffen-SS officer passed out cold on a pew.

Nose wrinkling at the sour smell of vomit and brandy, Tomitz snorts. “So that’s the Aryan superman we’ve heard so much about.”

“Yes. Disappointing, really,” Leoni concurs, but his eyes are on the priest. “Tomitz, Tomitz . . . You’re from Trieste, aren’t you? Your family’s in shipping!”

Don Osvaldo draws himself up, surprised by recognition. In his early forties, of medium height and medium weight, with medium-brown hair framing regular features, not one of which is memorable, Osvaldo Tomitz must introduce himself repeatedly to people who have already met him. “My father was with Lloyds Adriatico. We moved here when the Genoa office opened a branch in Sant’Andrea. How did you know?”

“The name is Austrian. The German is Habsburg. The Italian is Veneto. Ergo: Trieste! As for the rest? I cheated: my father was a commercial photographer. Lloyds was a good customer. I met your father when I was a boy. You must have been in seminary by then. How is Signor Tomitz?”

“He passed away last year. I was teaching at Tortona. I asked for a position here so I could be nearer my mother.”

“My sympathies, Don Osvaldo. My mother, too, is a widow.”

Satisfied to have established a connection, Leoni returns his attention to the drunk. With an almost professional efficiency, he pats the Nazi down and removes the man’s wallet. “Herr Doktor Oberstabsarzt Werner Schramm is with the Waffen-SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Hausser’s Second Armored Corps, late of the Russian front . . . Currently staying at the Bellavista. He’s in Sant’Andrea on two weeks’ leave.” Leoni looks up, puzzled.

“Odd,” Osvaldo agrees. “To come from such a hell, and spend his leave in Sant’Andrea?”

“Why not Venice, I wonder? Or Florence, or Rome?” Leoni glances apologetically at the frescoes. “No offense, Padre, but San Giobatta is not exactly a top draw.” Leoni replaces the wallet and resumes his frisk. Withdrawing a silver cigarette case, he offers its contents to the priest with exploratory hospitality. “Prego! Take half,” he urges. “Please—I’m sure the doctor would insist.”

“He’s not a bad fellow,” one of the novices comments, “for a Nazi.”

“Suora!” Don Osvaldo cries.

Dimples disappearing, the white-veiled sister scrubs virtuously at the mosaics, but Leoni’s laughter fills the basilica. Disarmed, Don Osvaldo scoops his half of the cigarettes out of the case. Leoni offers a light.

“American,” Osvaldo notes with some surprise, examining the fine white tissue paper. “I wonder where he—”

“Smoking in a church!” Suora Marta grumbles, trundling down the aisle. Already annoyed, she smells vomit, and her mouth twists. “Swine!” she snaps at the insensible German.

“Judge not, Suora!” Leoni reminds her piously. “I’m inclined to respect a soldier who has to get that drunk before confession. He must have an admirable conscience to be so ashamed.”

She holds out a hand. “Give me the rest.”

Leoni’s brows shoot upward. “Santo cielo! Do you smoke, Suora?”

“Don’t waste my time, Leoni. Tobacco’s better than gold on the black market. We’ve got orphans to feed.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Mary Doria Russell|Author Q&A

About Mary Doria Russell

Mary Doria Russell - A Thread of Grace

Photo © Dina Rossi

Mary Doria Russell is the author of The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace and Dreamers of the Day. Her novels have won nine national and international literary awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the James Tiptree Award, and the American Library Association Readers Choice Award. The Sparrow was selected as one of Entertainment Weekly’s ten best books of the year, and A Thread of Grace was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Russell lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Contact her at www.MaryDoriaRussell.net

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Mary Doria Russell

QQ: What inspired you to write A Thread of Grace?

Mary Doria Russell: Shortly after my conversion to Judaism, I came across Alexander Stille’s book Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families Under Fascism. The section called "The Priest, the Rabbi and the Aviator" was so dramatic, and so surprising, I set the book aside. I knew that I had to write about that era of Italian history somehow. When I mentioned this to a Polish Catholic friend, Maria Rybak, she told me a story about her aunt, who witnessed a Gestapo roundup of Jews during the war. "Never judge those of us who lived through those times," Maria’s aunt told her. "I saw a Jewish woman standing in the back of a truck with a baby in her arms. A lady standing in the crowd near me said, ‘Give me your child!’ The woman in the crowd could have been beaten for offering to take that baby. The mother had to decide: give her baby away or take the child with her to God knows what. Until you can imagine that, you can’t understand what it was like for us." So one of my goals with this novel was to recreate the immediacy of decisions like that. I wanted readers to buy in to decisions the characters made, and then "live" with the consequences as the story progressed. There was another moment that gave impetus to the writing of this story. One night I watched a PBS special about the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy. A French woman was interviewed because her house was right in the middle of what became a battlefield. She and her kids hid in a cellar hour after hour, while mortars and machine gunfire exploded above them. When the noise finally stopped, she and the kids came upstairs into . . . nothing. The house had been blown to bits. Now, that woman understood the historic moment and the importance of that battle, and she was grateful she and her children had survived. But what stuck in my mind was her final lament: "I had just finished wallpapering the hallway." You can see how her remark came to be reflected in my novel.

QQ: It took you seven years to write A Thread of Grace. Why?

MDR: Well, first of all, there was a ton of research to do about the era, the war, the issues, the characters, but there were a lot of factors that slowed things down–primarily the fact that I became a card-carrying member of the Sandwich Generation. Just as menopause was hitting me like a brick upside the head, my husband’s dad was dying of congestive heart failure; Don’s mother is now ninety, and lives in Illinois, despite my warmest desire that she be nearer. My own mom, who lived in New Hampshire, fought ovarian cancer for a grueling fifty-five months. Two days ago, we thought my father would be going in for open-heart surgery, but it turned out he didn’t need it after all. The adrenaline is still draining out of my system, thirty hours later. Let’s see. . . my son learned to drive and started to date while I was working on A Thread of Grace, and got his heart broken, and had a minor accident, and applied to colleges. He leaves the nest for a semester at a time, and got straight A’s his freshman year, but comes back every few weeks to leave dirty dishes in the sink. Oh, and the collie died in my arms after running up spectacular vet bills, and then we got a golden retriever puppy; I was housebreaking Leo while writing about April 1944. Then I got myself a three-year-old rescue dachshund from Petfinder.com while editing the manuscript, just because I wanted her, dammit. And she is adorable, but the upshot is, my life is just as full of distractions and responsibilities and self-inflicted complication as everybody else’s. So that’s why A Thread of Grace took seven years to finish. I gave up at least once a week, but I have an almost pathological drive for task completion, and e-mail from readers (some of whom have become dear friends) kept me going.

QQ: Did you have a day job when you started writing? Has the success of the books changed your life much?


MDR: I was a PTA mom while writing my first two novels, The Sparrow and Children of God. We could afford to have me stay at home to raise Danny because my husband, Don, is a software engineer who makes a good buck and has never been out of work a single day since graduating from the University of Illinois, back before the earth’s crust cooled. When we moved to the Cleveland area in 1983, we were able to buy a lovely house in South Euclid for a very modest price, so we have never been burdened by unreasonable debt. Our son has al­ways gone to the quite wonderful public schools here. The success of the first two books allowed me to fund my son’s college tuition at the University of Toledo, but he’s helped a lot by getting fabu­lous grades and a couple of generous merit scholarships.My big personal indulgence has been to hire Terry Wade and Daphne Robinson, who come once a week to keep the house up to standards my clean-crazy Italian nonna would have admired. You may notice that Teresina and Dafne do the same for Mirella Soncini in A Thread of Grace.

QQ:What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?

MDR: In science fiction, two books stand out. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was the first novel I read twice, and then again every few years. She brought an anthropological sensibility to science fiction that I appreciated. There were multiple cultures, multiple languages, and the inevitable misunderstandings that result when a stranger is coping with utterly foreign con­cepts. I loved the device of an unreliable narrator, and reread this book before beginning The Sparrow, to study how she used literary aikido on her readers. The second book is Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. That book, too, is decades old, but stands up to rereading well. Again, there is a theme of well-intentioned misunderstanding of language, and a sort of archaeological approach to science fiction, this time with an appealing religious twist: after a nuclear holo­caust, literacy is preserved in isolated Catholic monasteries. Among more recent books, I lean toward the kind of exquisite and hilarious observation of contemporary society that Karen Joy Fowler provides in The Jane Austen Book Club, and I loved her earlier World War II home front novel The Sweetheart Season. Karen has a way of making devastatingly funny remarks about less-than-admirable behavior, without ever being nasty or hurtful to the person involved. Another author whose work is both laugh-aloud funny and ironic, but also slyly sweet, is David Sosnowski. In his novel Vamped, he takes modern American culture and twists it around a single fictional fact: what if vampires were not only real, but eventually vamped nearly the entire population of the world? (Each meal makes a new vampire–a logical outcome of vam­pirism nobody else seems to have noted.) David makes you believe that this is just how America would react: with marketing campaigns for vacations in Alaska during the winter (no sun for six months, get it?) and illegal hunting trips for Òfree rangeÓ human blood. On my Web site, www.marydoriarussell.info, there’s a list of other books I’ve enjoyed, along with an annotated bibliography for A Thread of Grace.

QQ:What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?

MDR: I seem to gravitate toward big operatic movies: Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Tombstone. I like a moral and literary structure, the sense of trying to live by some moral code, even when society is debased by war or crime. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are comedies that my family and I watch until we know the entire script by heart. The Princess Bride and Young Frankenstein were early favorites. And then there’s Guy Ritchie’s Snatch, which is nonstop violence and obscenity, but somehow not offensive! And I love movies with great dancing: Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz, Carlos Saura’s flamenco Carmen.

QQ:What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you’re writing?

MDR: There’s a theme here: big, emotional, layered stuff appeals to me. I love arena rock albums like Van Halen’s 5150 and Def Leppard’s Hysteria. To me, those have the same fist-in-the-air power that Beethoven’s odd-numbered symphonies have. And I love every other Sting album. Cerebral and beautiful–gotta love a guy who can work curriculum vitae into a pop song. And no, I don’t listen to music as I write. I have to have quiet for that.

QQ: Many writers are hardly overnight-success stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?

MDR: Well, my story is that thirty-one agents turned The Sparrow down before Jane Dystel finally decided to take me on as a client. I don’t know if that’s inspirational or depressing, but it’s true.

QQ:What was the book that most influenced your life or your ca­reer as a writer–and why?

MDR: Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1935) by T. E. Lawrence. I saw the David Lean movie Lawrence of Arabia when it first came out in 1962. I was twelve then, and ripe for hero worship, and ready to imag­ine a larger world than Lombard, Illinois. I found a musty old copy of Seven Pillars, and to this day I remain fascinated by the book and the man who wrote it. I can name a number of direct ef­fects of reading the book. Initially, I became interested in archaeology because of Lawrence’s early years, and that led me to anthropology, which sustained my interest through three degrees and years of profes­sional work. I keep my hand in by editing the professional papers of friends in the field. Lawrence taught me that speaking more than one language opens doors to experiences you’d miss if you speak only English. Over the years, I’ve studied Spanish, Russian, French, and Croatian formally, with less studious stabs at Latin, Hebrew, Italian, and Ger­man. Each one has led me places I’d never have gone otherwise. Lawrence taught me that how you write is as important as what you have to tell about. Choice of word, rhythm, detail, editing, and overall structure make Seven Pillars literature, not just a mili­tary history or personal memoir. There are echoes of Lawrence’s experience in Deraa in my first novel, echoes of his war guilt in my third. I learned from Seven Pil­lars that intentions are irrelevant and regrets are useless: it doesn’t matter what you thought would happen, or that you meant no harm. Unintended consequences of good intentions is a theme I return to. I also caught the colon habit from reading his work: quod erat demonstrandum.

QQ:What are you working on now?

MDR: Dreamers of the Day is a novel about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. After the first World War, a handful of British and French diplomats got together in a nice hotel for a few days, took some fun camel rides out to see the pyramids and get their pic­tures taken, gossiped, flirted, argued–oh, yes, and invented the modern Middle East. I’ll come full circle with this one: T. E. Lawrence will actually be a character in the story, along with Lady Gertrude Bell, Win­ston Churchill, Chaim Weitzman, and Prince Feisal of the Hashemite royal family.

QQ: If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be–and why?


MDR: I would love to give a leg up to a young poet named Gary ten the libretto for an opera based on The Sparrow by the Puerto Rican composer Raymond Torres-Santos. And Gary will be collaborating on a project with me soon.

QQ:What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?

MDR: Don’t rely on other writers to critique your work. Find passionate readers who know what they like and why. Ask them to read your drafts, and tell you what works and what doesn’t, where they didn’t buy a motive or believe in a character, when the dialog was clunky, or the description hackneyed. It’s thrilling to be part of someone else’s creative process, and good readers can be better than another writer for diagnosis and even prescription. I rely heavily on a team of friends who can criticize my work without breaking my heart or discouraging me, and I give them a lot of the credit for the success of my own novels.

Praise

Praise

“Mary Doria Russell’s fans (and aren’t we all?) will rejoice to see her new novel on the shelves. A Thread of Grace is as ambitious, beautiful, tense, and transforming as any of us could have hoped.”
–Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

“Fans of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow and Children of God will be thrilled by her masterful new novel. A Thread of Grace is a rich, multi-layered narrative that offers fresh insight into a devastating time in world affairs. A story of love and war, it speaks to the resilience and beauty of the human spirit in the midst of unimaginable horror. It is, unquestionably, a literary triumph.”
–David Morrell, author of The Brotherhood of the Rose and First Blood

“Essential reading for people who love Italy. You will lose yourself completely in this ecumenical epic of Italians working together to save Jewish refugees during the German Occupation of 1943-1944. Russell has a deep empathy for her characters and writes with genius about the horrors of guerrilla war. This wholly absorbing historical novel ends with perhaps the most moving coda in fictional history.”
–Susan Cahill, author/editor of Desiring Italy and The Smiles of Rome


From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Renzo and Schramm have both committed crimes against civilians during war, but the priest Don Osvaldo feels there is some essential difference between the two men’s actions. Is the difference merely a matter of scale, or is there an ethical difference? Does your emotional response to each character color your opinion?

2. Renzo attempts to remain apolitical during the Nazi occupation. Was that a moral position or should he have fought the Nazis from the beginning? Is moderation or neutrality possible or even desirable during war?

3. We are accustomed to admiring the partisan resistance to German occupation during World War II. In today’s world there are many places where armed resistance to occupying forces is called terrorism. What makes a resistance legitimate? Does the motive of the occupying force make any difference?

4. Claudette’s children never understand her, and she dies a mystery to them. Have you been affected by the war experiences of a family member? Were you aware of how their experiences affected them?

5. Was Iacopo Soncini a bad husband or a good rabbi? How does having a family change the responsibilities of the clergy?

6. Imagine that you heard Schramm’s confession at the beginning of the book. If you were Don Osvaldo, what would you have told Schramm? Are there unforgivable sins?

7. Was Schramm’s remorse genuine at the end of the book? Why did he put his uniform back on when he was ordered to by the German officer at the hospital?

8. How would you feel about a moral universe where Schramm went to heaven and Renzo went to hell?

9. People who didn’t live through World War II often believe they’d have hidden someone like Anne Frank or helped refugees from Nazi Germany the way the Italian peasants did. What would be an analogous risk today


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