Miracle at St Anna’s by James McBride

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.

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About Mikaela

I am an artist and writer living in the Perth Hills
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