Four Americans from the 92nd Buffalo Division and a Tuscan village endure the worst of the war in a brutal and moving first novel from McBride (a bestselling memoir: The Color of Water, 1996).
The glossy Tuscany of Frances Mayes and the integrated army of Colin Powell are a half-century in the future in McBride’s history-based story of black Americans thrown against African-Americans in the storied 92nd joined New Zealanders, Gurkhas, and other Commonwealth forces to take back central Italy from the still-lethal German army. Today’s dreamy hill-towns and mountain vineyards were barren deathtraps in the freezing winter rain. Gigantic, gentle, illiterate Sam Train sets the action moving as he follows orders to snatch a young Italian boy from danger, then runs blindly in the wrong direction, clutching the boy and the souvenir marble head of a Renaissance statue he’d found earlier. Dodging gunfire, Train heads for the hills, convinced that the carving lends him invisibility. Three comrades, a brainy officer, a wily ex-preacher, and a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, try to retrieve Train, but he won’t leave the badly wounded child. The four soldiers, surrounded by the Germans massing for a new assault, are eventually forced into the village of Bornacchi, where residents are reeling from the Nazi slaughter of hundreds of their neighbors in the nearby church of St. Anna. Still, in the face of the worst that war has to offer, the villagers—pragmatic, superstitious, realistic and, to the wonder of the black Americans, willing to treat them with respect—not only persist but survive. The Americans’ very dicey situation deep in enemy territory is complicated by the arrival of a band of local partisans under command of the legendary Black Butterfly, with his own agenda. All will meet the Wehrmacht, but amid the treachery will come some small miracles before the end.
McBride’s heart is on his sleeve, but these days it looks just right.