Woman's face above title band, spiral staircase belowA friend was reading Russell’s The Sparrow for a book group which reminded me that we had this book on the shelf. This one isn’t science fiction, but instead a historical novel set in Northern Italy towards the end of World War II.

There are a number of point of view characters: an Italian soldier, various interconnected Italian Jews and Catholics, families of displaced Jews from other parts of Europe, a few Nazi officers, even a British soldier. The book includes a chart of characters, but I never had to resort to it. The people were all real enough that I easily recognized them when they came back into the spotlight.

I was half-way through the book before I committed to finishing it. My uncertainty was mostly because I wasn’t in a mood that could endure a book about the holocaust. While the camps are a constant lurking presence in the book, it is a mostly unfocused presence. To the characters, the death camps are mostly wild and unbelievable rumors. So while the Jewish characters are trying desperately to avoid capture by the Nazis, they are spared true knowledge of what their fate would be. The reader gets to supply his own sense of sick dread at what capture would really mean. I would have thought this approach would give the book a kind of intimate horror, but instead, for me, it put such a gulf between the characters’ view point and mine that I was never able to sink into the book enough to forget that it was just a book. With this subject matter that was actually a good thing.

Rather than being about the holocaust the book ends up being about the lengths people will go to to protect their neighbors from evil. Practically every character makes personal sacrifices that would be unthinkable in any situation less extreme than that war. The result is both inspiring for what it shows is possible and disheartening for the horrors it takes to make us put aside our differences.