Reading this book, which sets you among a Negro battalion during the second
world war, I found myself irresistibly reminded of Heller’s Catch 22. I have not read
many other books about American troops in Italy during the war but the same sense
of futility and stupidity and incongruity run through both books. McBride however
does not focus so much on the absurd and tells the story with a curious sense of
detachment which must have paralleled the feeling that Negro soldiers had while
fighting a war for white Americans who were fighting a war for someone else.
Like the aerial photographs showing the movement of German troops through the
Italian mountains, you hover over the story hoping the miracle in the title is going to
save you all. But miracles are seldom what you expect and this one is no exception.
The story follows four Negro soldiers who get separated from the rest of their troops
while saving a small Italian boy from the path of the advancing Germans. They hide
in a small village in the mountains and gradually come to understand their part in
the mess that is the final months of World War Two.
People often speak of a writer weaving a story but the strands of this story seemed
to me to be intricately braided together. McBride takes you down one path then
throws in a new connection which, in the next chapter, takes you out on a wide loop
before seamlessly threading back into the story line. It is a technique which enables
you to bear the appalling tragedy of war by backing away and coming at it from a
different angle. The resulting pattern is sad and beautiful.
Miracle at St Anna’s is a haunting evocative book which celebrates the courage and
determination of the Negro soldiers who fought for the freedom of the Italian
people knowing that the same freedom did not exist for them at home in America. It
is a fitting memorial.