Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
With his bestselling memoir The Color of Water, James McBride created
a fascinating story of growing up in the projects of Red Hook, Brooklyn and a
vivid portrait of his indomitable mother. Now, in his first novel, he broadens
his scope from personal history to the larger history of WWII and the little
known role that black soldiers played in it.
The story begins in 1983 with the abrupt and unexplained shooting by Hector
Negron, a New York City postal employee, of a man who wanted only to purchase a
stamp. Why Hector has killed this man and how he came to possess the head of the
statue of the Primavera, which had adorned the Santa Trinita bridge in Florence
since the sixteenth century, is the mystery that Miracle at St. Anna sets
out, in a most circuitous fashion, to solve.
Stepping back forty years, the novel plunges us into the world of the
all-Negro 92nd Division, into the fierce fighting of WWII in the mountains of
Italy, and into the hearts and minds of four unforgettable soldiers. It is a war
in which the unquestioned racial attitudes of 1940s America take on
life-and-death consequences on the battlefield, as white commanders willfully
jeopardize their black troops. It is, as private Bishop says, "a white
man's war.... Niggers ain't got nothing to do with it." But when Sam Train,
an illiterate giant of a soldier from North Carolina, saves a white Italian boy
from the invading Germans, a journey begins that will take Sam, Bishop, Hector
Negron, and Lieutenant Stamps far from their Division commanders to the remote
mountain village of St. Anna di Stazzema. Here they will encounter the village
witch, a beautiful young woman, partisan fighters led by the legendary
"Black Butterfly," and an Italian family that treats them with an
equality they have never before experienced. More importantly, it is here, in
the aftermath of a brutal Nazi massacre, that they will witness miracles and
make the powerful discovery that "everybody got something to do with
With a view of the war that is both panoramic in its sweep and deeply
personal in its exploration of the human spirit, Miracle at St. Anna
brings to life a largely overlooked historical moment and extends the reach of
James McBride's considerable storytelling powers.
Why do you think McBride chose to frame his WWII story with the post
office episode that takes place in 1983? How does this narrative frame
clarify or comment on the picture of the war it contains?
What knowledge of the African American experience in WWII did you bring to
Miracle at St. Anna? How did reading the novel deepen your
understanding of this aspect of the war?
In a fiery argument with Stamps, Bishop says, "So now the great white
father sends you out here to shoot Germans so he can hang you back home for
looking at his woman wrong.... The Negro don't have doodleysquat to do with
this...this devilment, this war-to-free-the-world shit" [p. 147-9]. In
what ways does the war reveal the racism and hypocrisy entrenched in
American society? How are the black soldiers treated by their white
commanders? How are they treated by the Italians? Is Bishop's cynicism
Why does Train become so attached to the young Italian boy he rescues?
What does the boy offer him that he's never had before? What does Train
learn from him? Is the boy, as Train claims, "an angel"?
The novel is titled Miracle at St. Anna but several miracles occur
in the book. Which of these is the miracle referred to in the title? What
effects do these events have on those who experience them? Do you think
McBride wants us to read them as divine manifestations of God's power or
simply as remarkable occurrences?
Why does Rudolfo betray the Italian partisan hero Peppi, the "Black
Butterfly"? What are the consequences of that betrayal? How is
Rudolfo's treachery revealed?
Why does McBride tell the history of the statue's head that Train carries
with him throughout the war? What does this history add to the story? Is it
possible to read the entire novel as a complex elaboration of that statue's
journey from a sixteenth-century marble mountain in Carrara, Italy, to late
twentieth-century New York City?
In the Acknowledgments, McBride says that the book began when he was a boy
listening to his stepfather and step-uncles tell stories about the war. What
struck him most forcefully was not the stories themselves but his Uncle
Henry's pride in his service. In what ways does the noveland
its stories of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Divisionreflect
Train, Stamps, Bishop, and Hector are four distinctive and vividly drawn
characters. How are they different from one another? What varying attitudes
do they have about the war? What larger themes does McBride address through
the conflict between Bishop and Stamps?
In a moment of mistrust of the Italians, Hector thinks: "He was glad
he didn't love anybody. It was easier, safer, not to love somebody, not to
have children and raise kids in this crummy world where a Puerto Rican wants
to kill an innocent woman for doing nothing more than trying to help
him" [p. 138]. Why would Hector feel this way? In what sense is the
entire novel about love and the risk of loving?
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