Like other gifted writers of his generation, James McBride has the enviable capacity to enlarge and complicate his readers’ understanding of what it means to be human. McBride amply demonstrated this ability in his first book, the lyrical, transcendent memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1996). He proves it again in his first novel, Miracle at St. Anna.
"I’m always looking for that connective tissue that binds one piece of humanity to the next," McBride says during a call to his home in New Jersey. "I really live in that gray space between black and white. Because that’s where the truth lives."
Based on a little-known factual episode of World War II, Miracle at St. Anna tells the story of four black soldiers from the segregated 92nd Division during the campaign in Italy in the final year of the war. The narrative focuses mainly on Sam Train, a hulking, otherworldly, Christ-like innocent from America’s Deep South who finds and cares for a traumatized Italian child who was a survivor of a Nazi massacre in the village of St. Anna di Stazzema.
"That was the best part of the book to write," McBride says. "Because you had these two creatures who in many ways typify innocence and yet are so culturally, physically and humanistically different. I loved that relationship."
The inspiration for the novel, as McBride states in his acknowledgements at the end of the book, came from the stories his Uncle Henry, a World War II veteran, told at family gatherings in New York. Because of those stories, McBride says, he was always curious about the role blacks had played in World War II. "After The Color of Water became a success and I had some creative freedom, I decided to write a book about the black soldiers who liberated a concentration camp in Hungary. But it just didn’t work. It wasn’t the story I was put here to tell. Eventually I realized I didn’t want to write a book that just glorified war, because war is not a glorious thing. The whole business was just a futile act of human madness. So I started to research this piece and began to construct my story and seek the characters that would inhabit it, and I essentially became very depressed for several months. From this outrageous hurricane of tumultuous events I had to find something that had some meaning."
To research the book, McBride moved himself and his family to Italy for the better part of a year. "You can’t reach the kind of detailed knowledge you need by reading a book; you have to go there. You have to eat it and live it. My research process is always very extensive. For The Color of Water I interviewed friends that I grew up with because they remembered details of my life as a child that I had no recollection of. In Italy, I interviewed everyone I could."
The result is a vibrant portrait of a rural, war-torn Italy that will be unfamiliar to most American readers. "There’s another world in Italy that is much deeper than what Italians usually allow outsiders to see. The land is just haunted. They believe that God shaped the mountains with his finger and that witches live in the hills. "
In Miracle at St. Anna the Italian villagers and the black American soldiers develop a special bond, a relationship McBride says is based on historical fact. "Every single black soldier I talked to who was in Italy just loved the Italians. German soldiers and white American soldiers disdained the Italians. Black soldiers knew what that felt like. They had enormous compassion for the Italians. They respected them. And the respect was mutual."
McBride, who delivered a beautifully nuanced portrait of racial relations in his memoir The Color of Water, brings the same humanity and understanding to his exploration of the complicated relationships between black soldiers and their white commanders in this novel. "There was a tremendous amount of distrust between the soldiers and the officers who commanded them," he says. "You also had Northern officers and Southern officers who were at odds over how blacks should be treated. It’s easy now to look back on these officers and say they were bad, but we were basically asking these men, normal men, to do an extraordinary thing — greet America’s civil rights movement with open arms while at war. We funneled our civil rights problem into the hands of four or five hundred officers of the 92nd Division. Some of them were up to the task and some of them weren’t."
According to McBride, the two military campaigns his four protagonists participate in have been viewed as failures by military historians because black soldiers cut and ran, refused to fight or became disorganized. His own research and recent work by military scholars have challenged this assessment
But McBride’s purpose isn’t really to rehabilitate reputations or glorify war. "I wrote the book because I think war is a bad thing," he says emphatically. "I plan to make that very clear whenever I talk about the book." And, indeed, the novel is sometimes brutal and tragic; McBride’s warriors suffer.
They also transcend. A deeply religious man, McBride says he wanted Miracle at St. Anna to also "speak to the miracles that happen if you believe in God. I sort of skirt the mythical. I just scrape the top level of suds off the beer mug, just enough that you can suspend your disbelief for a moment."
Reflecting on his own life, McBride says, "I’m at the point where I realize that the only things keeping me from being wormfood are the tiny molecules dancing around in my body; to me that’s a kind of miracle.
"I’ve come to believe there’s no such thing as control or safety," he says. "I love America. My family is a living example of what is possible in America, and so am I. But American society has become in many ways the moral equivalent of cardboard. We have all these fancy gadgets that keep us materially comfortable. We feel we have the technology to make other people suffer and keep ourselves immune from suffering. But there is no safety. . . . That’s why everyone is so upset right now. No one is immune from suffering. We will all suffer someday. So the deeper question is how do you want to live? We can live in fear. Or we can live as sharing, caring people. In that way, I think it’s a good time for Miracle at St. Anna to come out."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.