The Denver PostFebruary 24, 2002
By Dylan Foley
During Christmas 1944, thousands of American soldiers stopped a German offensive in northern Italy known as the "mini-Battle of the Bulge." The brutal fighting and heavy casualties of the battle have been lost in history, as have the sacrifices of the 15,000 black Americans who fought there.
In his debut novel, "Miracle at St. Anna," James McBride tells the story of four black soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany. The unit adopts a little Italian boy who is the sole survivor of a horrific massacre, as the brutal German attack looms on the horizon. McBride, author of the best-selling memoir "The Color of Water," creates a compelling tale, addressing the almost-ignored history of black soldiers in World War II, and exploring issues of hope, revenge and redemption.
"My uncle Henry was in Italy and France during the war," said McBride, 44, from his office in New York City. "The mythology of World War II was quite attractive. When I was growing up, it did not include black soldiers."
McBride's 1996 memoir dealt with growing up as the son of a Jewish mother and an African-American father. His book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for two years. "Creatively, I am so far beyond "The Color of Water,'" he said, explaining why he wrote a novel next. "When you write a book, you become an "expert' in that area. I didn't want to be known as the Deepak Chopra of black-white relations, hugging everyone, saying "Why can't we get along?'" he said with a chuckle.
McBride came upon the "Buffalo soldiers" of the 92nd Division in Italy by accident. "I had wanted to do a novel about black soldiers liberating a concentration camp," he said. "I wrote three chapters. My editor, who bought "The Color of Water,' rejected it. She rejected the writing.
"I needed to research my story, the events I was writing about," said McBride of his three drafts over five years. "I needed to think about the plot, the braided narrative, the character development, to make them work together. I spent eight months in Italy researching the book."
McBride, a composer and journalist, resettled his wife and kids in Italy. He found out about the horrific massacre at the Tuscan village of St. Anna Di Stazzema. As a reprisal for eight German soldiers being killed, the Nazis took everyone from the surrounding villages and killed 560 people. "I read witnesses' accounts. A 6-year-old boy had survived," he said. "I took all the accounts and decided what I was going to wrap my story around."
McBride's four black soldiers are archetypes. Lt. Stamps is the educated Northerner; Bishop is the card shark; Train is the religious farm-boy Southerner; and Hector is from the Bronx. "(The soldiers) were composites of the men I interviewed from the 92nd Division," explained McBride. "Stamps was supposed to represent the more sophisticated black soldiers, who viewed the kowtowing and shuffling of the Negroes like Bishop and Train as holding the race back.
"The purity of Sam Train represents the purity of the human spirit," said McBride. "His lack of bitterness makes him special. It is a true survival mechanism when dealing with a racist society.
"Bishop is a composite of the black soldiers who did not like the white commanders," he noted. "I needed someone to say the more militant thoughts."
Though McBride addresses the racism of the white commanders of black troops, he doesn't want racism to be the main focus of his novel. "I didn't want the book to turn into a "spanking the white man for racism' diatribe," he said. "I wanted the 92nd Division to get their place in history, though."
"Miracle at St. Anna" starts in 1983 with a murder related to the war, then moves into the bloodcurdling combat. The four soldiers wind up in the temporary oasis of the village of Bornacchi, near St. Anna, waiting for the war to destroy everything. There is heroism and betrayal.
For McBride, writing a novel was much harder than writing his memoir. "With the memoir, you know most of the story, the arc of it is clear - my mother was born, she got married," said McBride. "With "Miracle at St. Anna,' there was just a blank canvas. You find yourself throwing paint at it, to see what colors stick, which colors don't."
To tell his story, McBride focuses on certain symbols, including the magically multiplying rabbits in a greedy farmer's basement. "Rabbits were like gold during the war," he said. "I use these details from the war to touch on these symbolic points. As the story started to take shape, these symbolic elements helped make the connective tissue that held the novel together."'
McBride's two decades of experience as a journalist helped shape his novel: "At People magazine, I had to condense things. When I was at the Boston Globe, I learned how to report things. At the Washington Post, I learned to write long."
However, he had to reject his reporter's cynicism. "What I had to discard from journalism was the bitterness," he said, "the "We've been there before, why are we doing this?' Journalism is full of gifted writers who've been at it too long. You run out of juice, you run out of goodness."
After a pretty straightforward war story, the ending of "Miracle at St. Anna" is a very dramatic departure, with supernatural events and a miracle. It is risky, but it works. McBride said he believed in his ending. "If you believe it, you can get others to believe it," he noted. "There were miracles throughout the story - the crying statue, Train touching Bishop's face. I wanted Bishop to have a bit of the miracle in his blood, so he'd be set up for the ending.
"The ending of the book, I wrote one time. The point where they reach the church, that's God's work there. At that moment, I knew what I wanted the book to say. Ultimately, I wanted people to understand how powerful God is."
(MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA By James McBride, Riverhead, 271 pages, $24.95)