Miracle at St. Anna

by James McBride

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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...

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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 one of the ingredients that renders both black and white Americans vulnerable to German attack.

The venality of Rudolfo and the racism of the American commanders are the two factors that lead to the novel’s crisis, in which the German soldiers return to St. Anna and kill the remaining villagers. This final scene of mayhem, however, is mitigated by another dimension of this novel that always accompanies its gritty realism. The ending features supernatural elements prefigured by earlier touches of magic, such as the Primavera statue crying real tears, the ability of Angelo suddenly to speak English, the ability of Train intermittently to experience powers of intellect and perception otherwise unavailable to him, or, most comically, fantastically multiplying rabbits in an old Italian farmer’s basement. These little miracles anticipate the outcome of the novel, so that when the villagers and the soldiers reach the church in the end, McBride can persuasively introduce events that suggest the work of God and not simply the work of man. The previous episodic adventures all lead the group to climactic confrontation with the enemy, and although all three men—Bishop, Stamps, and Train—die during this attack, all three also acquit themselves as heroes, finding in the end an immortality both spiritual and earthly. This is especially unexpected on the part of Bishop and Train, who end by transcending the labels of rascal and simpleton respectively. Train especially represents an innocence and spirituality that is never bitter or resentful and always affirms the values of faith, hope, and love. It is this seemingly unprepossessing, marginal character who is indispensable to the plot’s good outcome.

Of the four, only Hector Negron survives, thereby confirming his status as the perpetual odd man out. In the novel’s prologue, which takes place in 1983, an aging Hector, who has become a Harlem-based postal employee, shoots a customer in the face who has simply asked for a 20-cent stamp. Who this customer is, why Negron shoots him, and why Hector possesses the valuable head of the Primavera statue among his belongings is not explained until the novel’s epilogue, in which it is learned that justice has finally been served by the murder of the treacherous Rudolfo, who presented himself at Negron’s postal window for his unwitting retribution, affirming one of the book’s metaphysical certainties, namely that the mills of God will eventually make things right. The fate of both Angelo and the Primavera statue are also saved for the novel’s denouement in 1983, when it is learned that both miraculously survived. Angelo and the statue act as a symbol for Italy itself which, the novel suggests, has survived and succeeded because of the sacrifices of men like Negron, Train, Cummings, and Stamps.

McBride deploys his narrative and characters to explore three major themes. The most important overall theme is the heroism of the black soldiers of World War II. Like their white counterparts, black men answered the call to greatness in a way that led to their assumption of almost mythic status in the minds of the generations to follow. This is especially true of the massive Train, who discovered in himself extraordinary powers and who was destined to become a central figure in the struggle against evil. This novel’s commemoration of the almost- ignored history of black soldiers in the war permits them to take their place as a members of the “greatest generation” in an increasingly legendary historical era. McBride’s tribute to the valor and moral character of the all-black Ninety- second Division during World War II is, as a result, an important contribution to the collection of novels, films, and documentaries that honor this generation as it passes away and also reflects a nostalgia for that era as one having a level of moral feeling lacking in subsequent generations. A second important theme is the passionate, warm, joyful, and resourceful nature of the Italian people. The character of Angelo in this regard becomes a symbol of the ability of the Italian people to endure a great crisis and find a way to survive and prosper. In addition, the narrative celebrates the artistic heritage of the Italian people as well as its enduring mystical side, which ranges from belief in ghosts, goblins, and witches to higher spiritual principles represented by the Madonna-like figure of the Primavera statue. This leads to the third major theme, which is a vision of the mystical or the magical blended with the novel’s convincing, fact-based realism. In a way that is classically American, McBride’s use of fantasy is redolent of the tall tale as suggested by the stories swapped by McBride’s uncles in his childhood. This “tall tale” element is a good interpretative frame for the entire novel, which weaves reality and fantasy in a way that suggests that the truth resides in both idioms and that both are needed to get at the heart of things. Although this is a realistic novel grounded in fact, the magical aspects of McBride’s story introduce a sense of wonder into the narrative and reinforce the presence of the miraculous suggested by the title.

The major problem with this novel is the abundance of material and characters McBride attempts to organize within a novel of just under three hundred pages. The white American officers, the disparate group of four black soldiers, the young boy Angelo, a number of Italian villagers, Italian partisans, and one German prisoner-of-war, plus an additional backstory involving the Primavera statue, make this a novel with perhaps too many characters and narrative streams to smoothly assimilate. Nevertheless, McBride’s descriptive powers are often brilliant and memorable, and he is able to accelerate his narrative and build to its devastating outcome with the skill of a born storyteller. Most of all, McBride is able to mix the fantastic and the real in a way that is associated with the most cutting-edge trends in the postmodern novel. Finally, this novel continues the fluid style and confident exploration of the themes of faith, memory, and the triumph of the human spirit found in McBride’s highly regarded memoir The Color of Water (1996) and succeeds in solidifying in McBride a recognizable literary identity and signature style.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal and Constitution, February 3, 2002, p. C4.

Black Issues Book Review 4 (March/April, 2002): 29.

Houston Chronicle, March 17, 2002, p. Z18.

The New York Times Book Review 107 (March 3, 2002): 16.

Publishers Weekly 248 (November 26, 2001): 36.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 13, 2002, p. E1.

The Washington Post Book World, March 3, 2002, p. 15.