James McBride’s first novel is based on actual historical events, to which he was led by the memories of his uncles, one of whom served in Italy during World War II. The product of eight months of additional research in Italy, the historical background of this novel concerns America’s all- black Ninety-second Infantry Division, particularly the fifteen thousand men involved in what historians nicknamed “The Little Battle of the Bulge,” which occurred on Christmas Day in the Serchio Valley in Italy in 1944. This novel affirms the heroic status of the Ninety-second Division, whose officers were white but which was made up of black soldiers. The novel additionally depicts the situation of the Italians themselves as they struggle with the havoc wreaked by the Nazis. In this regard, McBride makes another historical event a crucial element in this story, namely, the massacre of Italian villagers by a Panzer SS Division at the Tuscan village of St. Anna di Stazzema.
While it was inspired by real events and real people, the novel’s main plot concerns four black soldiers who serve as archetypal representatives of the actual soldiers of the Ninety- second. The most important of these is Sam Train, an illiterate young Southern farmer who rescues someone McBride imagines as the sole survivor of the horrific massacre at St. Anna—Angelo, a mute, six-year-old Italian boy. It is Sam and his rescue of Angelo that is the heart of this novel, supplying as it does the “miracle” at St. Anna to which the title refers. The final miraculous rescue of Angelo is of a piece with anticipatory magical and redemptive events that surround the childlike Sam. Along with more than one magical rescue of Angelo, Sam also rescues the marble head of a statue that once stood on the Santa Trinità bridge in Florence. The huge, gentle Sam is convinced his Primavera statue, named for the season of spring and rebirth, makes him invisible to the enemy, and throughout the novel the statue lends a “halo” effect to those with whom it comes into contact. In addition to carrying the statue’s head wherever he goes, the gentle and guileless Sam, whose strength seems almost superhuman, also carries the traumatized Angelo, who he is convinced possesses a numinous, spiritual power as well. Train’s faith in the miraculous combined with his simple and unmovable devotion to the child act as a counterpoint to the evil around him and demonstrates his humanity and heroism in the face of danger and destruction.
In addition to the spiritual figure of Sam, who makes the novel’s crucial point of love and personal sacrifice, the narrative reveals the diverse personalities of his three companions who, along with Sam, were developed as composites of the men McBride interviewed from the Ninety-second Division. There is the educated Lieutenant Stamps, who is eager to break the color barrier in the U.S. Army and who has a certain contempt for the simple-minded Train and for the third black man in the platoon, the wily, conniving Bishop Cummings. The fourth man, Hector, is not black but Puerto Rican, and as such remains something of an outsider. Although they are all members of the Ninety-second, the four men quarrel as well as cooperate, the tension between Stamps and Bishop culminating in a near-fatal physical conflict. Here McBride’s purpose is to depict the struggles within the African American community as well as this community’s tensions with the wider white world. Although the four represent a community that fails to receive proper respect or recognition from the racist white hierarchy of the American armed forces, the four men nevertheless do the right thing by sustaining their camaraderie and fighting bravely against evil in defense of the Italian villagers.
The other story in this novel concerns the little Italian village and its denizens, whom McBride portrays with humor, affection, and respect. By the end of the novel, the fates of the four black soldiers are tied up ineluctably with that of the villagers, all of whom have been betrayed by a spy in their midst. McBride here demonstrates his capacity for unpredictability and complexity in reading character—Rudolfo, the Italian partisan, is exposed as cowardly, venal, and disloyal, whereas a captive German soldier is revealed to be decent and humane. Rudolfo’s betrayal culminates in placing everyone in jeopardy, but McBride here also exposes the racism in the American army, whose unwritten law requires that no black man should give orders to a white man and as a result is...
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