Book: Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication date: 2002
Summary: The 92nd Infantry Division, composed of black soldiers and their white commanders, invaded Italy in 1944 encountering desperate entrenched German troops and a chaotic political landscape of even more desperate Italians who had witnessed atrocities, experienced starvation, and found it hard to imagine any sort of future for themselves or their children. In that environment, the gentle giant Sam Train rescued a small Italian boy. He raced to safety, pursued by three of his fellow soldiers. The five of them ended up lost and separated from their larger unit, eventually finding some measure of safety in a small Tuscan village. The mysteries and miracles and tragedies multiply like rabbits resulting in a layered story featuring intrigue, violence, and healing.
Thoughts: Miracle at St. Anna by James McBride illuminates many under-told stories. The subtitle describes the most obvious, A Novel of the Buffalo Soldiers of World War II. The Buffalo Soldiers, of course, are the African-American combat troops that I associate most with 19th century conflicts on American soil. The soldiers in this novel, however, fought with the 92nd Infantry Division, a segregated unit that wore a buffalo patch as a sleeve insignia, during the Italian Campaign.
The role of Italy in World War II is another under-told story. I know that Mussolini ultimately sided with Hitler. However, my sense of who the enemies were in World War II puts Italy a very distant third. In this book, it’s clear that Italy was a very confusing place in World War II. Your neighbor or your brother might be a Fascist, a partisan (supporter of the resistance), or a bandit. Most people were none of the above unless they needed to be to stay alive in a particular moment. Like when I read about the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland (Book Review: The Insurrection in Dublin by James Stephens), I was reminded that when war comes to your town, the average person’s response is to lay low and attempt to survive.
That aspect came out in our discussion last night at our Book Club meeting in a slightly different way. One participant noted that we haven’t had war on our soil in the US for 150 years — a cause for gratitude but also for humility. We understand nothing about what it is like to worry about your daughters getting raped on the way to draw water from the village well or to not know which answer will keep you alive when the question is “who do you support?” It is hubris to believe that we know what the right answer to that question is or to know much of anything else about what makes those situations better or worse for people. It is beyond arrogance to not care enough to find out from the people who are most effected.
Appeal: Unlike yesterday’s book (Book Review: Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson), Miracle at St. Anna will certainly appeal to both male and female readers. As a woman, I appreciated that the residents of the Italian village included two fascinating female characters and that the plot, while including some elements of military strategy, worked as a story about a journey into a strange world.
There are sly bits of magical realism in this story, but not enough, I think, to annoy readers who don’t like that sort of thing. The seemingly impossible things merely add to the mystery that penetrates the miracle of the title.
Have you read this book? What did you think?