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Originally published Sunday, February 6, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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"A Thread of Grace": Good and evil, intertwined

Novelist Mary Doria Russell moves in an entirely new direction from her two earlier books ("The Sparrow" and "Children of God," suspenseful and wrenching ...

Special to The Seattle Times

"A Thread of Grace"
by Mary Doria Russell
Random House, 448 pp., $23.95

Novelist Mary Doria Russell moves in an entirely new direction from her two earlier books ("The Sparrow" and "Children of God," suspenseful and wrenching speculative fiction novels) in this engrossing, exciting and occasionally appalling novel about Italy in the last years of World War II.

As Mussolini's regime collapses in 1943, the Germans come rushing toward the Ligurian coast of Northwest Italy, chasing after the Italian Jews in order to implement the Final Solution. Just ahead of the Nazis run the terrified remnants of the Blum family, father (Albert) and daughter (Claudette), Jewish refugees from southern France who cross the Alps on foot to escape. Freezing and miserable, scaling rocky and vertical mountains in street clothes, flinging away the suitcases they can no longer carry, the Blums are aided by a homely but kindly young Italian soldier, Santino.

Coming Up

Mary Doria Russell

The author of "A Thread of Grace" will appear at 7 p.m. Feb. 24 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333; ) and at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Eagle Harbor Books on Bainbridge Island (206-842-5332;

Thus Russell weaves one of the major threads in this densely populated, well-plotted novel, which is thick with intersecting plots and characters — most of them both colorful and memorable. You may find yourself initially reverting to the book's handy opening list of characters to figure out who's who among this vast collection of Nazis, collaborators, Italian Catholics, Italian Jews, resistance fighters, rabbis, priests, soldiers and ordinary people. But as Russell's story begins to coalesce, you're gripped by these people who have lived through so much, and who show us their best and their very worst.

In the little Ligurian town of Porto Sant'Andrea, the priest Don Osvaldo Tomitz is among those who help to hide the Jews. He also struggles with his decision not to offer absolution to an alcoholic Nazi deserter, Doktor Schramm, whose confession contains Schramm's calculation that he is personally responsible for the deaths of 91,867 people (at Auschwitz and elsewhere).

Another struggle torments the Italian Jew Renzo Leoni, who can't forget his part in the 1935 bombing of a hospital during the Abyssinian campaign. The conversations between Schramm and Leoni are especially riveting: The ironic Leoni turns to the Nazi doctor and remarks, "Never underestimate how soothing it is to have someone else to blame. If Jews didn't exist, someone would have to invent us."

Russell shows us the cost of war with images of startling clarity: the young Italian soldier at the Russian front, wiping his own spattered flesh and blood from his face after a grenade turns his hand into "chopped meat"; the Italian rabbi Iacopo, "underslept and overburdened," deciding that he cannot abandon the foreign Jews hiding in his town, but that he will risk only his own life, "not the lives of his family or his congregants"; the priest, Tomitz, who endures agonies of torture so that a thousand Jews, and the people who harbor them, will go safe.

In the final "Coda," dated 2007 in a Canadian hospital, the children of the elderly and dying Claudette Blum struggle to find some clue, "an emotional Rosetta stone," so they can understand why she was so unavailable to them, why she never talked about the past. They don't know why — but we do, and we understand why Claudette always gave strangers money, saying, "If you can help, you gotta help."

Russell reportedly mirrored the role of chance in wartime survival by flipping a coin to decide which of her own characters would live or die. As in "The Sparrow," the story of a group of Jesuits who colonize space with unforeseen results, there is a tough core to her writing, an unflinching grasp of the evil set in motion by "Klara Hitler's sickly son ... all the harm he ever did was done for him by others."

Amid all the horror documented here, there is honor and decency, too (the Italians saved more than 40,000 Jews in the last two years of the war). The quote from an old Hebrew saying that provides Russell's title says it best: "No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace."

Melinda Bargreen is the classical music critic for The Seattle Times;

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