Published by Lake Union Publishing
Publication date: December 1, 2016
Genres: Historical, Romance
Italy, 1943—Germany occupies much of the country, placing the Jewish population in grave danger during World War II.
As children, Eva Rosselli and Angelo Bianco were raised like family but divided by circumstance and religion. As the years go by, the two find themselves falling in love. But the church calls to Angelo and, despite his deep feelings for Eva, he chooses the priesthood.
Now, more than a decade later, Angelo is a Catholic priest and Eva is a woman with nowhere to turn. With the Gestapo closing in, Angelo hides Eva within the walls of a convent, where Eva discovers she is just one of many Jews being sheltered by the Catholic Church.
But Eva can’t quietly hide, waiting for deliverance, while Angelo risks everything to keep her safe. With the world at war and so many in need, Angelo and Eva face trial after trial, choice after agonizing choice, until fate and fortune finally collide, leaving them with the most difficult decision of all.
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Before I picked read FROM SAND AND ASH, I had no idea (or if I did, I totally forgot) of the incredible role the Catholic Church played in saving many Jewish people during World War II. Amy Harmon beautifully weaves together fiction and her own characters with historical truths, real heroes, and villains to form a harrowing tale of faith, love, and the power of unrelenting hope.
Harmon draws you in with an emotional prologue, finding our hero, Father Angelo Bianco, running for his life and frantically searching for Eva, the woman he’s loved for years but can’t have. He’s beaten almost to the point of immobility but that doesn’t stop him from trying to make sure Eva is safe.
Afterwards, we’re taken back to when Angelo and Eva are young children, prior to the new laws that restricted what the Jews were allowed to do. Eva is Jewish and Angelo is Catholic, but religion was never a issue for them until later. The clamp around the Jews’ autonomy in Europe reaches Italy and begins to tighten to the point where it’s dangerous for Jews. The threat of imminent death takes hold, forcing Angelo to fulfill a promise he made to Eva’s father—to protect her at all costs.
Angelo’s family heavily encouraged him to become a priest, but throughout the story, he struggles with the desires of his heart and God’s will for his life. This internal struggle is complicated by the fact that he loves Eva in a way a man loves a woman, but he’s always deemed his commitment to the Church as his calling. His choice has haunted him and hurt Eva in the process. But what I liked in this story is how his view on his true destiny shifts and changes, showing the true providence of God.
Both Eva and Angelo go through so much together: working to save the Jews of Rome, keeping her identity a secret, and the ever-present threats to the lives of the Jews. Eva and Angelo change drastically throughout the story, hardening to the harsh realities of war, but their love for each other never falters. And that’s the beauty of this story: their love is constant.
Much of the book centers on religious faith and God’s will, but I would also argue that there is an even more general theme of just having faith, having hope when times seem bleak. Sometimes hope is all you can have when you have nothing. One of my favorite passages was when Eva was talking about mitzvah, “a holy act or tradition that elevates the mundane to the divine.” That idea was woven throughout the book in different contexts and I find it quite beautiful.
The prologue reveals that the hero and heroine are in serious peril, which really left me wanting to know how they got to that point. But I had some trouble getting into the story immediately. I liked that there was an external force at play to keep our hero and heroine apart, aside from just the internal conflict of Angelo being a priest. The character development is done well but I was more attached to the character’s plight rather the characters themselves.
As much as I really enjoyed this historical aspects of this book, some of the more longer historical narratives slowed down the pacing of the plot. I wanted there to be a little more story with our characters and edited down educational dumping. I liked this book but it won’t be one that will stay with me for a long time, which is another reason I didn’t rate it higher.
Like I mentioned before, I didn’t know the amazing story of how the Catholic Church actively hid Jewish in convents and operated a World War II Underground Railroad, taking Jews from danger to safety. All in all, a solid historical fiction novel with romantic elements, full of moments that will break your heart and then fill it up again.
* Thanks to Lake Union Publishing for providing me with an advance reader copy of From Sand and Ash. All opinions are my own and were not influenced by receiving this book for free.