No one is more surprised by the success of her first two novels - The Sparrow and Children of God - than Mary Doria Russell. "God knows, writing about Jesuits and space was not a sure thing," Russell exclaims, laughing, during a call to her home in "an unfashionable suburb" of Cleveland where she lives with her husband, a software engineer, and their son, Dan. The family moved there in 1983 when Russell, a paleoanthropologist by training, got a job teaching anatomy at Case Western Reserve University. She became a novelist by accident when she lost her teaching job. "Not only did I not want to be a writer when I grew up, the last time I took an English class was when Sonny and Cher were still married!" she says. "I didn't know that I'm not supposed to be able to get away with the stuff that I get away with."
The stuff Russell gets away with is a spellbinding, provocative mix of believable characters, compelling plotlines, good - often great - dialogue, and moral philosophy. The Sparrow and its sequel, Children of God, dazzled science fiction fans and general readers alike with the story of Jesuit priest Emilio Sandoz's catastrophic mission to the planet Rakhat and his return some years later to find the extraterrestrial civilization in turmoil as a result of its contact with humans.
In her new novel, A Thread of Grace, Russell turns her attention and her considerable talents from the future to the past to vividly dramatize the little-known story of how a wide network of Italian priests, nuns, villagers and farmers saved the lives of nearly 43,000 Jews in the final years of World War II.
"That Italy - an ally of Germany, a Fascist country - would have the highest survivor rate of all the countries in occupied Europe was fascinating to me. I felt the desire to understand what went right," Russell says. Researching the book, she spent a great deal of time in Europe talking to aging Jewish survivors and their Italian rescuers. Her sense of obligation to the people she talked to sustained her through the seven long years it took her to complete the book. "I felt such a sense of responsibility to the people who had taken the time to let me into their lives and tell me what happened to them in their youth," she says. "I needed to make sure those stories weren't forgotten, that I wasn't the only one to hear them and be moved by them."
Drawing on these true-life stories, her own imagination, her great skill as a storyteller and a compulsion to get it right, Russell fashions a moving and suspenseful novel that also manages to convincingly explore the most challenging moral and ethical questions of our times.
Russell's story begins on September 8, 1943, the day that Italy's surrender to the Allies unleashed a flood of Jewish refugees struggling over the Alps from France to safety in Italy. Among these are 14-year-old Claudette Blum and her father Albert, Belgian Jews who have barely managed to stay ahead of the advancing Nazis. Their hopes for safety, however, are quickly dashed as the Nazis occupy Italy and force the Blums into hiding in a rural village whose inhabitants have never before met a Jew. That Claudette eventually survives the war - though emotionally and psychologically scarred - is a bright moment in an otherwise wrenching tale. Others from Russell's vibrant palette of heroic, kind, likeable characters are not so lucky.
"I was concerned that I was writing a feel-good Holocaust book," Russell says with passion. "I was afraid that in writing about Italy, where 85 percent of the Jews did survive, that it would be another opportunity for people to think that they would have been clever enough or plucky enough or imaginative enough to survive. But all the survivors tell you that it was just blind dumb luck. It wasn't intelligence. It wasn't bravery. You just turned left instead of right without knowing you'd made a decision."
Discussing the problem with her 16-year-old son Dan on the drive home from school one day, they decided they would simply flip a coin to determine the characters' fates. At home, Dan flipped for each character heads he lived; tails she died. "And then it was my problem," Russell says wryly.
The impact of these unexpected outcomes is powerful, casting into high relief the moral questions about World War II or any war that are so important to the emotional force of A Thread of Grace. Russell presents a complex moral universe: her most appealing character, Renzo Leoni, a resourceful, funny, brave Italian Jew whose actions save the lives of many, is consumed by guilt over his participation in the Italian conquest of Ethiopia during which he became a decorated war hero. And Werner Schramm, a Nazi doctor who is responsible, by his own count, for the deaths of 91,867 people, is, quite simply, a very likeable guy.
"Schramm," Russell says, "was remarkably easy to write, and I find that one of the scariest pieces of self-knowledge that this book provided. I understand Schramm in ways that I find really distressing. At different points in my life I would have been far more amenable to the idea of a master race. I can understand how I might have been willing to think that I was extra special. There but for the grace of God go I."
But despite the complex moral picture Russell presents in A Thread of Grace, she expresses unreserved admiration for the Italian peasants who took in and hid the Jewish refugees. "Would I have had the guts to do what they did?" she says. "Not a chance. To do what they did when they took in these Jews - these strangers, these foreigners - would be as though it were September 12, 2001, and a Muslim family knocked on your door and said, the FBI is looking for us but honest to God we are innocent. Can you help us? And you did. If nothing else, I wanted to show how dangerous it was. And how courageous these people really were."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.