- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

Two new releases offer starkly opposing preoccupations and styles of storytelling. In A Thread of Grace (Random House, $25.95, 448 pages), Mary Doria Russell sets a large cast of fascinating, disparate characters in the mountains of northern Italy during the last two years of World War II; Ginger Strand in Flight (Simon & Schuster, $23, 311 pages) studies four members of an unexceptional, contemporary American family over the course of one weekend.

Ms. Russell is a writer of wide ranging interests with a special focus on religious subjects. Here she chooses as her theme a Hebrew saying — “No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace” — and as her subject the fortunes of a group of people caught in the chaos and violence of Northern Italy in the confusing latter days of the World War II. The war has been the inspiration for a great many novels and memoirs but, by choosing a complex, less well known chapter of that history, Ms. Russell renders it fresh. She has avoided the sentimentality that sometimes surrounds the subject by grounding her story less in emotion than in the extraordinary — literally beyond the normal — moral conflicts her characters face.

From a cast of compelling characters, two stand out. Renzo Leoni is an Italian Jew, the youngest child and only son of a large family. A pilot and decorated hero of the Italian war in Abyssinia, he bears a heavy burden of guilt (which he thinks of as “the last vestige of honor in a vicious, barbaric world”) for an infamous episode there that has changed him from a charming, passionate young man to a cynical drinker equally despising of fascists, communists and Germans. Initially dismissive of his brother-in-law’s warnings of danger for Jews in the wake of Italy’s 1943 surrender and subsequent occupation by the Germans, Renzo finds himself two years later deeply involved in the partisans’ struggle against the Nazis, willing to run any risk to save fellow Jews.

Claudette Blum is, when we meet her, a 14 year old Belgian girl fleeing the Germans. Having become separated from her mother and brothers, she and her father are part of a group of Jews crossing the Alps on foot from occupied France into Italy with the hope of finding safety there. Intelligent and well brought up, Claudette is also a typical teen, described as “veering between confidence and fear” and settling for “adolescent pique.” But the desperate situations she faces bring out the best in her. Clinging to the memory of her lost mother and nursing her dying father, she finds in herself strength she could not have imagined. She grows, accepting the rough life into which she is thrust with courage and grace.

Around these two appealing figures swirl a host of others — Santino, the gentle, young Calabrian soldier who “didn’t know there were still Hebrews alive in the world” and falls in love with Claudette; Mirella Soncini, the patient wife of the local Rabbi; Werner Schramm, a Nazi deserter and medical officer with astounding, ghastly sins to confess.

The plot is complicated and fast-paced (and often recounted in the present tense), full of intrigue, rumors, nicknames in various languages, false identities, secret plans. A list at the book’s start is helpful, indeed essential, in keeping the characters straight. But this is not a quick or easy read. It is, rather, a thoughtful, ambitious and very literary treatment of a historical moment. The writing is rich, laden with historical allusions, astute observations and phrases in Italian and German. Occasionally the author reaches too hard for an image (Mirella rolls out “highways of pasta”) but for the most part the writing is graceful.

Perhaps the novel’s most moving passage is, in fact, the author’s transcription in her concluding note of a lengthy inscription on a monument erected in Northern Italy in 1998 commemorating “the noble inhabitants of these valleys” for offering “hospitality and safety” to “Jewish refugees uncertain of their fate, coming from distant countries.” It alone makes “A Thread of Grace” memorable.

“Flight” by Ginger Strand is quite different. It’s a shorter book, set in our own time, in the bland landscape of a Michigan farm. Will Gruen, its central character, is about to turn 60; he’s recently (and not happily) retired from his career as an airline pilot, living on his family farm and getting ready for the wedding there of the younger of his two daughters.

He is also nursing a secret. He has been offered a chance to fly again as a pilot for an airline in the Far East. He is not ready to share the news with his wife, Carol, who is planning to open a bed & breakfast on the farm and is totally absorbed in preparations for the wedding, “eddying through each room in a last-minute surge of nervous preparation.”

The four days of the book’s action unfold through the perceptions of each of the its central characters — Will and Carol and their daughters, Margaret, an opinionated college professor, and the about-to-be-married Leanne. As they go through the routine of getting ready for the big day and for the cocktail party they will host the night before, each character has a public face and a quite different inner monologue.

In restrained but elegant language,Ms. Strand conveys Will’s wistful nostalgia for flying and sense of aging, Carol’s delight in her daughters and anxious intensity in seeking meaning in her own life, Margaret’s abrupt realization that her marriage is over, Leanne’s trepidation about embarking on hers. Memories weave in and out of each mind as the characters make trips to the airport and the grocery store, cook food for the party, hem the wedding dress, talk to relatives. The pace is slow and ruminative.

One of the many pleasures of “Flight” is its focus on middle-aged and older characters. Will finds that he has “developed the old person’s habit of getting overtaken by his thoughts, contemplation swallowing his intentions … .” His heart, “old fool, pounds harder (every year) for the past’s close calls.” After Carol makes an unkind remark about Will she wants “to dispel the dampening of cheer her remark has caused. She gives a hesitant, exploratory laugh, a foot in the door of mirth as it edges shut.” Her “angular beauty is turning into a kind of flinty coating, like the shell of an exquisite crab.” She had always wanted her daughters to escape from the farm but “once they did, she was surprised at how keenly she felt left behind.” She had been “like a ground squirrel raising baby birds, telling them they could fly without having the means to show them how.” The mother of the wedding’s groom is “a quiet, aging lady who has organized her life with great precision to downplay its central fact — loneliness.”

This close-up focus on individual characters does make the reader occasionally long for the wider lens of narration. And despite all the detail, some aspects of these four characters are puzzling. Will’s preoccupations do not seem to include sex. Leanne’s heavy drinking has never been noticed by her family. But these are details. This is a deeply satisfying book, written with sympathy, perception and artistry.

The “Flight” of the title is more than Will’s passion for aviation. It’s Leanne’s secret longing for escape, it’s baby birds leaving the nest, and it is imagery so perfectly expressive it is archetypal. Ms. Russell uses it too. At the end of “A Thread of Grace” a character goes willingly to a cruel fate, contemplating swifts swirling in the sunset. His death is “like flying, except you never come down.”

Stephanie Deutsch is a Washington writer and critic.

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