An accomplished jazz saxophonist and composer, James McBride has also written for newspapers (The Washington Post) and magazines (PEOPLE), and his first book, the 1996 memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother, spent more than two years on the New York Times best-seller list. Now he's tried his hand at fiction, and the result, the World War II novel Miracle at St. Anna, is a haunting meditation on faith that's also a crack military thriller.
Set in Italy during the waning days of 1944, Miracle tracks four members of the U.S. Army's largely African-American 92nd Division, the real-life unit known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Sam Train, a hulking man-child from North Carolina, rescues a 6-year-old local boy caught in the crossfire. The pair ends up stranded in the tiny Alpine town of Bornacchi along with comrades-in-arms Hector Negron, a Puerto Rican from Spanish Harlem; Aubrey Stamps, a second lieutenant from Washington, D.C.; and Bishop Cummings, a corrupt minister from Kansas City. As thousands of Nazi troops close in around them, the American grunts integrate themselves into the villagers' lives -- protecting the children, romancing the women, and allying with the anti-Mussolini rebels hidden in the hills.
At first, McBride's strikingly cinematic novel feels like a melange of pop-cultural influences. Sam Train seems transported from The Green Mile. Like the similarly extra-large death-row inmate John Coffey, he's none too bright (''Who's Pearl Harbor?'' he asks) and deeply superstitious (he carries around a statue's head that he rubs for good luck). The boy, whose name we learn is Angelo, could be one of those doe-eyed Italian tots who melts the hearts of adults in art-house weepers like Life Is Beautiful.
Yet by combining these elements with nods to Ralph Ellison (Sam thinks he can turn invisible, rendering himself bulletproof) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (via magical-realist touches), McBride creates a mesmerizing concoction. Writing about dreamy creatures like angels (Sam believes Angelo is one) and ''chocolate giants'' (Angelo believes Sam is one) can be tough to do without seeming precious, but he manages the feat by never forgetting the realist half of the magical-realism equation.
The Color of Water took a clear-eyed look at race from both black and white perspectives, and McBride continues to offer insight into the issue. ''The great white father sends you out here to shoot Germans so he can hang you back in America for looking at his woman wrong. You think that's fair?'' Bishop asks bitterly. ''I got a better chance with these Germans than I got with my own. Least I know what side they on.'' The ex-con clergyman is Miracle's most vivid character, as McBride -- whose father was a Baptist minister -- knows the lingo of the black church intimately. He re-creates one of Bishop's sermons in which he ecstatically declares God is ''the baddest kitty kat in the firmament. He got the mojo and the sayso.''
McBride, who took his first book's title from his mother's contention that God was neither black nor white but ''the color of water,'' inherited her gift for choosing offbeat yet powerful images. A white captain is described as having ''dark eyes that sucked in everything around him like bilge pumps,'' while an elderly Italian man's skin ''covered his face like an old blanket draped over a pile of junk.'' McBride's dialogue is also note-perfect, like when Lieutenant Stamps complains to his noncompliant men, ''Why does it sound like an auction every time I tell y'all to do something?''
Aside from the occasional cliche, such as the Italian resistance fighter who knows the mountains ''like the back of his hand,'' Miracle flows along with cool, clean prose. The shell-shocked American soldiers rediscover their humanity by caring for Angelo, the inspiration for the novel's title: ''a miracle boy who represented everything that every Italian held dear, the power to love, unconditionally, forever, to forgive, to live after the worst of atrocities, and most of all, the power to believe in God's miracles.'' Profoundly spiritual but rarely preachy, Miracle at St. Anna turns out to be less a Good Book than a good book -- a miracle in itself.