Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

This historical fiction Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel (2005) by Dr. Maria Doria Russell is based on a little known true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of more than 40,000 Jews during the final years of World War II.    

A classically trained anthropologist, the author did meticulous research over many years including interviews with rescuers, survivors and veterans in the U.S. and Italy.

The story takes place mostly in northwestern Italy (Aosta, Piedmonte, Liguria) using fictional as well as actual locations.  The novel follows the stories of Jewish refugees, families of Jewish Italians, Roman Catholic clergy, communists, anti-fascists and Germans.

The refugees fled over the Alps to small farms and villages in these mountains, believing that they would find safety. Two of these characters are Claudette Blum, 14, and her scholar-father, Alfred. They lose everything, including Claudette’s mother, in their journey through the mountains.  

Italy eventually made a separate peace with the Allied forces and pulled away from Germany.

The German Nazis were so furious with Italy’s lack of cooperation that they went into Italy. Almost overnight Italy occupied Nazi territory as Hitler’s soldiers found Italian Jews and transported them to the so-called work camps.

Though many Italians helped the Jews, northern Italy was full of Nazis, fascists, spies and collaborators, and many Italians paid the ultimate price for their compassion.  

The author introduces vivid, fictional characters and places that are perhaps composites from the very real people she met and learned about and the places she visited. This novel is filled with ethically complex dilemmas humans face in war and the unexpected heroism that overcomes the evil.

“A Thread of Grace” is a compelling, beautifully written and profoundly moving  book about the hardships and suffering and sorrows in Nazi-occupied Italy.