Customer Reviews: Miracle at St. Anna (Movie Tie-in)
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on March 13, 2002
Review of Miracle at St.Anna by James McBride, Riverhead Books.
When I saw the title of the James McBride book Miracle at St.Anna I thought to myself : "could that be the same Sant'Anna di Stazzema that I described in my 1998 book Trapped in Tuscany, Liberated by the Buffalo Soldiers? " I purchased the book and discovered that it was the same Sant'Anna and that the McBride story takes place in the same area of Tuscany in which I, as a young American boy, found myself trapped for the duration of World War II.
I read the story with much interest hoping to have a better understanding of the relationship between the African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry division and the Italian people from Tuscany. During WWII I was located in the village of Diecimo, 10 miles from Lucca, in the Serchio River valley leading to the Garfagnana region and the towns of Barga, Sommocolonia, and Castelnuovo. Diecimo was located in the widest part of the valley, which became part of the German Gothic Line of defense. My mother, father and I arrived from Boston in Diecimo the first of August 1939 for a short vacation. My mother and father emigrated to Boston in 1920. Both were native of Diecimo and each had parents living in the village. Shortly after our arrival my father suffered a life threatening heart attack, thus we remained trapped in Italy for the duration of the war.
In mid July 1944 the German command forced the evacuation of the valley. We managed to escape, carrying what we could, and hid out in the village of Convalle, a short distance from Sant'Anna di Stazzema, until we were liberated on September 30 by the Buffalo soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division.
James McBride describes the relationships between the African-American soldiers and their white superiors in a very realistic way. He also explores the relationship between the Italian citizens, the Partisans and the American troops so that the reader has a very good understanding of the feelings between the various groups during the time of war.
When the Negro soldiers (as they were called then) arrived in Diecimo I was 14 years old. As a child I lived in Brighton, which is a suburb of Boston, and it was very common to associate with people of various races and ethnic backgrounds. The people of Italy had been exposed to people from the African Italian colonies of Somalia and Ethiopia via newsreels, magazines and newspaper articles and photographs . It was common knowledge that the people from Africa were black skinned people. One of my teachers had spent time in Somalia with her husband, both were teachers in Africa. When the black soldiers arrived in Diecimo the villagers thought that they were simply Americans and that they were the ones who liberated Italy from the Fascists and the Germans. The soldiers were greeted with open arms, and the people were relieved that the was would be over soon. The soldiers were very comforting to the people and gave them food and clothing. In exchange people offered soldiers rooms and beds in their houses, which were far better than sleeping in tents during the cold and wet winter.
As soon as the 92nd Infantry Division soldiers arrived I made myself available to them as an interpreter and helper. I helped them unload supply trucks coming from Leghorn and helped them deliver the supplies to companies and squads stationed in the nearby areas. The front line was established in the Barga area, about 8 miles from Diecimo and there was always the danger of bombardments. During the evenings many soldiers visited our home because we spoke English and we reminded them of an American household. Soldiers brought food supplies and often my mother prepared a nice hot dinner for them including fresh vegetables and eggs which they craved. We also offered plenty of wine for the soldiers. There was no electricity; the only available light was derived from filling a coke bottle with American gasoline, stuffing a cloth wick in the bottle, then carefully lighting the wick with a match. We were fortunate that the "Molotov cocktails" did not explode!
On Christmas Eve 1944 we hosted a Christmas dinner for several African-American soldiers. My mother prepared a good dinner using available food from the village, supplemented by U.S. Army food. We had a candle lit dinner, drank wine, sang Christmas carols, and the soldiers danced to American music with my mother, our teacher friend and another lady. This was a memorable and unforgettable evening that I will never forget.
At that time, unknown to our guests, the Germans were planning a major battle near Barga and during the night began to push theAmerican soldiers back into the valley. James McBride describes the battle in his book and the Americans suffered many casualties.
The massacre at Sant'Anna di Stazzema occurred on August 12, 1944. Five hundred and seventy persons, mostly women, children and old people were killed in the piazza, not in the church of Sant'Anna. It was a reprisal towards the Italian people who helped the Partisans. The German soldiers were under the command of Major Walter Reder, a 29 year old from Austria. Miracle at St.Anna evolves around Sant'Anna and brings together soldiers and a small Italian boy. A relation ship develops between the boy and a giant chocolate soldier named Train. I enjoyed the book, the story give me a better understanding of how the African-American soldiers felt about the war, a better understanding than I had from my first hand experience with the Buffalo soldiers. I questioned a few technical things in the story. The electricity in Italy was different than U.S. electricity during that period of time U.S. electricity was 60 cycles and 120 volts. Italian electricity was 50 cycles 240 volts not compatible with U.S. electrical devices. It would not be proper to plug in a telephone or radio to charge the batteries. At that time telephone or military radios were operated on D.C. provided by non-rechargeable batteries. Electricity was not available for a long periods of time during the time period in the book because generating stations and transmission line were destroyed by the war.
I highly recommend Miracle at St.Anna along with my book Trapped in Tuscany, Liberated by the Buffalo Soldiers. One can better understand the relationship between the Italians and the liberating U.S. Army troops.
Tullio Bertini
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on December 25, 2005
James McBride's "Miracle at St. Anna" is a tenderly written, marvelously manufactured and historically and socially relevant story about an incredible incident is a small Tuscany village during World War 2.

The story commences with a brief description of an inexplicable present day murder committed by a Puerto Rican postal worker Hector Negron against one of his customers. We then flashback to Italy in December 1944 in the waning days of the war. A group of 4 American soldiers, members of the fabled Buffalo Soldiers of the 15,000 all black 92nd Division find themselves lost miles away from their lines in the Tuscan mountain valley village of St. Anna di Stazzema. The multilingual Negron is a member of that group including Train, a simple giant of a man, Bishop, a shifty hustler and the cerebral Lt. Stamps.

Train, confused after an aborted skirmish in which he was wounded ambled off into the village and the other men went to find him. Train discovered a dazed and confused young boy injured very badly due to a building collapse and became his guardian, believing the boy was imbued with sacred mystical powers. The men were welcomed by the local villagers who shared their meager provisions with their dark skinned saviors. Little by little we examine the characters both American and Italians through McBride's insightful prose.

The men are cut off from their command but after receiving radio contact are ordered to stay put and if possible capture a German prisoner. A group of Italian partisans known to the villagers enters the town lead by a man called Peppi and his lieutenant Rodolfo, with a German deserter. We learn from the young boy, who gradually recovers from his injuries and begins to talk that the Germans had massacred more than 560 innocent villagers in the church of St. Anna, in reprisal for partisan activity. This fact is corroborated by the partisans. Peppi believes that the slaughter was precipated by a betrayal and endeavors to use the American soldiers to uncover the traitor.

Meanwhile the ragged German troops are mobilizing a huge force to forge a last ditch offensive within this Italian valley region. As the battle reaches the village a startling series of events occurs which makes us believe that there was divine intervention. The reasons for Negron's slaying of the customer become crystal clear.

McBride's novel is an important piece of literature because it accurately describes the prevalent social mores of the time. The black soldiers, while allowed to die for their country, are discriminated against by their superiors. They are for the most part lead by white commanding officers, many of whom are Southern racists. Any black officers are that in just name only and are prevented from making command decisions. McBride successfully integrates his social commentary, with history and spirituality to create a deeply moving tale.
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Based on a historical incident of a massacre in a small village in Tuscany during WW2, James McBride's novel deals with the role of African-American soldiers, sometimes called the Buffalo soldiers, commanded by white southern officers. I expected this story to be about this and to also learn more about the Italian campaign. I was unprepared, however, to find myself in the middle of a tale constructed with magic realism, introducing some very memorable characters, the background for the story being just that - a background.
Because of the stupidity of their commanders, four of these soldiers find themselves far behind enemy lines. One of the men is a simple-minded giant who has rescued a small Italian boy from the rubble; one of the men is graduate of Howard University; one is a small-time preacher and outspoken hustler; and one is a Puerto Rican who can speak Italian because he has grown up in an Italian neighborhood. Eventually they find their way to a town that has known its share of sadness. Throughout the book, there are unexplained miracles, such as rabbits that mysteriously multiply under the floorboards of an elderly Italian's bedroom. And there are also some silly editorial mistakes, such as a man of 67 thinking back to his relationship with a lost love 40 years before when he was 17. It made me wonder if the author did this on purpose or whether he just couldn't do the arithmetic.
However, the strength of the story did make up for my doubts, and I was swept along with it, especially as it neared the end. Even though it's about war, there are good and bad people on all sides. And, actually, it is a German soldier who performs a vital act of heroism and compassion. A mystical quality pervades everything and the writing is strong and evocative. It put me right there in that village of Tuscany and yet there was something about it that made me know that these people and the village could never really have existed the way they were described. This was such a contrast to the author's former best selling memoir, "The Color of Water" that I had to readjust my thinking and let myself be placed into this magical world he took such a risk to create. I applaud him for his efforts.
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on January 17, 2004
I picked up this book in one of the bookstores in Honolulu airport not knowing what to expect. It quickly turned out to be one of the best novels I have ever read. The story revolves around a group of American Buffalo Soldiers fighting in Italy during the Second World War. Though the story begins with an incident in the present time, the reader is eventually taken to the past in order to discover the circumstances that led to that "incident".
Emphasis is not only given to the discrimination within the armed forces but also to the development of the characters of the soldiers. The book is so well written that you feel that you are part of that group forming your own alliances and friendships. The struggle that unfolds is not only the fight for individual survival but also the struggle to understand oneself.
A beautiful bond that develops is the bond between a young Italian child and one of the soldiers. No heroics or blown out of proportion myths here. Just a beautiful bond between humans that run into each other in the worst possible condition, the midst of a battle.
Though the miracle takes place at the end, I also feel that it was unfolding throughout the book.
A beautiful book.
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on February 21, 2002
I became fascinated with the Italian campaign after driving a charter bus for a reunion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team who served in the Italian mountains and won more awards than any other American military group in history. The common concern among these aging vets was that in the US no one had ever heard of them, but in Italy (many had just returned from a visit) they were idolized. Since then, I have tuned into this time period whenever it has come up. Parts of the campaign are memorialized in the movie and book, "The English Patient". When the Ghurka fighters were training near my home in Seattle for the Gulf war in 1991, their part of the story was told.
Very little has been written about the Buffalo Soldiers, black soldiers of the segragated US Army, and their part of the campaign. Most of what is out there is very cut and dried military history, (sorry but I find it boring).
In "Miracle at St. Anna" a fine novelist has taken it upon himself to describe the moment. He weaves a wonderful tale. He is not writing a "Band of Brothers". He is not WEB Griffin. He relies on the intelligence of the reader to fill in background. He counts on the readers awareness of the epoch, the situation, the various cultures represented in the book. I could go on and on. I just finished the book last night. The final image in the church where a life is taken, and a life is given was wonderful.
Buy this book. Read it. Then read "Up Front" by Bill Mauldin to give you some background on the Italian campaign. Then read "A Walk in the Sun" for the white "grunt's" esperience. Then re-read "Miracle" for the sheer enjoyment.
Thanks, McBride!
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on December 16, 2004
I had read "The Color of Water" several years ago, and I was curious to see how James McBride would handle fiction. I was not disappointed. McBride brings to life his four soldiers from the Buffalo division, men who were pawns in a white man's war, who tasted freedom of a sort they would not know when they would get back to America--if they would make it alive. The relationship between Train and the little boy was just magical, and the various subplots all made perfect sense. I can't wait for my children (now 9 and 11) to be old enough to read this book!
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on January 5, 2005
Rarely have I encountered a book that moved me as much as James McBride's Miracle at St. Anna. Not only should it be declared an American classic, every college should make it part of their freshman reading list.

McBride engages the seldom mentioned subject of black combat soldiers in World War II. Four members of the famed 92nd Infantry Division (the Buffalo Soldiers), find themselves trapped behind enemy lines in Tuscany. Surrounded by Germans, the quartet rescues a small Italian boy who proves to be the catalyst in each man's quest for courage, love, sacrifice, and honor. The poignancy of their battle is emphasized by the ambivalence they each experience over fighting for freedoms in Europe that they are not afforded in their own country. Each man accepts the challenge, albeit reluctantly at times, exhibiting a depth of character and humanity previously unknown to them.

McBride weaves a theme of invisibility into the story that translates into the moral invincibility of the main characters. McBride has studied and practiced his craft well. I can honestly say that I feel privileged to have read his work. I hope to see more novels from him in the future.
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The author, who penned the classic international bestseller, "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother", and was the recipient of the prestigious Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, now turns to a story inspired by an incident that took place during World War II in the war torn, Italian village of St. Anna di Stazzema in the region of Tuscany. This is a war yarn with a twist, as it features a certain segment of our nation's army at the time, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Division.
The Buffalo soldiers were men of color in the segregated army of yesteryear. On top of fighting enemy soldiers, they were also subjected not only to racist stereotyping but to poor battle decisions by their white commanding officers, which decisions reflected just how dispensable the army thought these Buffalo soldiers to be. This is a story primarily viewed through the eyes of these very soldiers.
In the town of St. Anna di Stazzema, something very bad happened, something that would affect all those who would encounter those connected to the town and its events. It would affect Germans, Americans, Italians, partisans, and collaborators in different ways. Its impact would carry through the years and last until the present day.
This is a story about those Buffalo soldiers, the village in Tuscany nestled in a war zone, the enemy soldiers, villagers, collaborators, and partisans whom they encounter. At the heart of all that transpires is a little Italian boy, traumatized by war, whose fate would touch all with whom he came in contact and who would be at the heart of the miracle that was to take place. It is through him that they all learn that miracles do, indeed, exist.
The book gets off to a great start. In present day New York, an older postal worker, for seemingly no reason, blows away a customer at point blank range with the single pull of a trigger. An investigative reporter runs with a lead and finds that the postal worker has, hidden in his home, a famous piece of statuary, an exquisitely sculpted head, which has been missing from a bridge in Italy since World War II. The mystery deepens.
The book then reverts to World War II and the cast of characters that are central to the story. It is here that the author runs into some difficulties. When a number of Buffalo soldiers get caught behind enemy lines, the story start to fall apart. Though it is an interesting story, it is simply dully told. Excruciatingly pedestrian in its telling, the book takes its toll on the reader, turning what could have been a vivid, riveting account into a soporific one.
It is not until towards the end of the book that the story again picks up and is able to deliver the same one two punch that it does in the beginning. By then, however, it is too late, and the book never reaches the promise so incipient in its beginning pages. Still, for those readers willing to put up with some disappointment, the book ultimately delivers at the end.
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on February 18, 2002
James McBride paints a vivid picture of war torn Italy in 1944. He paints a picture of love, honor, sacrifice and miracles amidst the backdrop of hate, selfishness, outright evil and destruction. It is a story about people and it is a story about what we can do to each other, both for good and for evil. You will find yourself drawn to the characters and you will wish you had the chance to meet a few of them in your lifetime.
Have you visited Italy or wish to? Have you gazed out across her valleys and admired her hills and wondered about the stories those ridges and valleys could tell? Have you gazed lovingly at a weathered Nonna with kind eyes sitting in her doorway shelling beans and considered what her eyes have witnessed and what she has experienced? It is amazing that she is even alive.
This story is a moving glimpse into a time in the history of our world that can never be forgotten. I loved this book and am recommending it to everyone I know. Thank you James McBride, you are a brilliant story teller. Thank you for every bit of research you put into this book. The acknowledgements at the end were just as wonderful to read as the rest of the book.
Let's continue to honor the men and women who fought for us with honor. They are heros.
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on May 30, 2013
This was pretty awful -- a true disappointment. The book's back-jacket-snippet made the story seem promising, but, ultimately lacking in the verisimilitude department, it failed to live up to my expectations. The plot was an incoherent mess that vacillated between scenes of gratuitous violence and cringe-worthy sentimentality and the characters were stereotypical and only superficially developed. On top of all that, the writing itself was pretty uninspiring. I just couldn't get into it.
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