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A Thread of Grace is the third novel by Mary Doria Russell, best known for her Science Fiction work The Sparrow. Instead of a distant planet, this story is set in World War II Italy during the months between Italy's official surrender and the end of the war in Europe.
The book follows several groups of people as they struggle to survive the recent Nazi occupation of Italy. One set of stories follows several Jewish refugees as they hide out with peasant farmers in the mountains. Another set follows the efforts of the Italian Resistance as led by Renzo Leoni (and aided by a doctor/Nazi deserter). Another set follows the German SS officers commissioned with bringing Italy under control.
The overall story manages to be a Tear Jerker, Crowning Moment of Awesome, and Crowning Moment of Heartwarming for the entire nation of Italy—it is essentially a fictional retelling of how ordinary Italians saved over 40,000 Jews (Italian and otherwise) from being sent to the camps by the Nazis. However, as this is set during World War II, this heroism comes at a massive personal cost to every named character.
Tropes in this work:
- Action Bomb: Lidia Leoni's last act is to blow up a jail to facilitate an escape/theft of essential materials for the Italian Resistance.
- The Alcoholic: Renzo, albeit a functional one. Werner is this way at the beginning of the book, but he sobers up enough to help the Italian Resistance.
- Apron Matron: Many of the peasant women who hide the Jewish refugees.
- Armored Closet Gay: Artur Huppenkothen.
- Badass Grandma: Lidia Leoni, full stop.
- Bratty Half-Pint: Angelo Soncini
- Cold-Blooded Torture
- Dead Guy, Junior: Claudia names her new baby Alberto after her dead father. The baby dies two days later.
- Dead Little Sister: Altira for Angelo, Irmgard for Werner.
- Four Lines, All Waiting: The beginning lists the major characters we will be following. At least five different plot threads occasionally intersect.
- Good Shepherd: What all the religious figures aspire to be.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Lidia Leoni
- I Have Many Names: Renzo again.
- It Got Worse: The closer the Nazis are to defeat, the more violent and deadly they become.
- Loads and Loads of Characters: Thank goodness for the handy list of characters at the beginning of the book.
- Magnetic Hero: Renzo
- Meaningful Echo: After a drunken Schramm confesses to Don Osvaldo that he killed 91,687 people at the camps with a euthanizing syringe to the heart, Osvaldo tells Schramm to kill himself as there will be no absolution for him. At the end of the book, after Schramm devotes his efforts to helping the Italian resistance (including teaching a Jewish boy how to be a medic) he risks his life to save a captured and violently tortured Don Osvaldo. When it becomes apparent that he’s beyond saving, but may live just long enough to divulge what he knows about the Resistance, Schramm, after being permitted and taught by another priest, gives Osvaldo his last rites and releases him from his pain. With a syringe to the heart.
- Not Now Bernard: A blackly comic version. While Lidia, Rabbi Soncini and Renzo talk about the danger of allowing Jews to go to Yom Kippur services, they keep shushing Angelo, who desperately wants to show the adults what he found in the street. He had found a woman's thumb, complete with freshly applied nail polish.
- Out of Focus: What inevitably happens with the Loads and Loads of Characters.
- Pregnant Badass: One of Russell's favorite tropes.
- La Résistance
- Someone to Remember Him By: Claudia gives birth to her late husband's child, but the premature baby dies two days later. Doubly tragic in that the baby was named after her late father.
- Suicide by Angry Lynch Mob: Renzo
- Took a Level In Badass: Many of the characters as the book progresses, but the most triumphant example has to be Claudia/Claudette, who goes from bratty teenager to hardened resistance fighter.
- Villains Out Shopping: In between conversations about crushing the Italian Resistance, von Thadden and Reinecke talk about how pleasant it would be for their wives to meet and how their children are doing.
- Violence Discretion Shot: These are used less and less as the book progresses to build up the tension and the stakes.
- Wham! Line: "It's like flying, except you never come down."
- World War II