“The Maginot Line will hold,” she said, trying to sound convincing. “You’ll be home by Christmas.” The Maginot Line was miles and miles of concrete walls and obstacles and weapons that had been constructed along the German border after the Great War to protect France. The Germans couldn’t breach it.”
But when the unthinkable happens and the Maginot Line really does *not* hold, Vianne Mauriac’s life is drastically changed.
A story about Occupied France during WW2 and the Resistance, this novel attempts to bring to life the events that center around one family during this incredibly tragic and critical period of history.
Vianne lives in the small village of Carriveau, France. Her husband Antoine is a prisoner of war in Germany, and her sister Isabelle, a rebel at heart, has once again been expelled from boarding school. The story alternates between Vianne and Isabelle, two very different sisters with varying responses to the war, collaboration, and survival.
Isabelle becomes involved in the Resistance movement. Vianne, however, is merely trying to prevent dangerous repercussions for her daughter Sophie, and so she tries to keep a low profile. When their home is requisitioned by the enemy, however, their lives become endangered and Vianne especially is exposed to the vastly different personas of the enemy soldiers. The constant food shortages, cold winters with little heat or electricity left, and fear of reprisals as their freedoms become more and more restricted (possessing a radio, for instance, is a crime punishable by death), takes their toll and Vianne finds herself also constantly struggling with guilt as she accepts food for her family from the enemy.
“She was the first woman to queue up outside the shop this morning and because of that, she got her full ration of butter. One hundred fifty grams for the month. Two-thirds of cup.
Meanwhile her sister Isabelle is unable to hide her disdain for the German officer living in their home. To avoid further danger to the family, Isabelle leaves for Paris where she continues to work in the Resistance movement. Initially she had started with distributing Resistance literature, but soon Isabelle is helping to rescue and transport downed Allied airmen to safety.
This book was hard at times to put down! Remembering that “The Nightingale” is historical *fiction*, I did notice that it had some minor flaws in both character and plot details. Some of the situations seemed a bit contrived and unrealistic (it was hard for me to believe, for instance, that an RAF airman would ‘hide’ behind a potted plant in the middle of the busy streets of Paris). But I found it informative too, as I read about conditions like the thousands of refugees that clogged the roads to escape Paris, when it was first taken over by the Germans.
I also did not know that France initially had a “Free Zone” (at the start of the German occupation), nor did I know very much about the Vichy government. As we know now, with hindsight, the gradual changes for the Jews become more and more restrictive until finally both foreign and French Jews are treated as one, and the unthinkable — genocide — happens, with most of the French citizenry helpless to prevent it.
This book illustrates the concept that ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. “The Nightingale” portrays the consequences of a corrupt military system spiraling out of control, contrasted with individual stories of heroism, loss, and courage in the face of extreme oppression.
Vianne discovers that within the complexity of human nature itself, there is both good and evil, as she experiences the kindness of a German officer who disagrees with the direction his country has taken, and the cruelty from another German whom she learns to fear.
As one progresses through the story, we find we so *want* there to be a happy ending. The hardships and dangers described become so real that the reader fears the impossibility of even one character finishing with a happy outcome, which in this book simply means pure survival to the end of the war.
“They had to stay alive. Now more than ever. Last week, new prisoners had come with news: the Russians were advancing across Germany, smashing and defeating the Nazi army. Auschwitz had been liberated. The Allies were said to be winning one victory after another in the west.
A race for survival was on and everyone knew it. The war was ending. Isabelle had to stay alive long enough to see an Allied victory and a free France.”
It is one thing to put oneself in danger to save the life of a Jewish neighbor or friend, and quite another to put one’s own family in jeopardy. What choice would we ourselves make? Would we hide Jewish children, knowing how improbable it seems for our own family to be able to live on the little we have? Do we risk the possibility of death or transportation to a concentration camp, not only for ourselves, but for those in our family, to save someone else (not of our own flesh and blood)?
“The Nightingale” seeks to find answers to questions like, how much can we (or, should we), compromise our personal beliefs and morality, in order to save ourselves or others? Is there a line to be drawn when it comes to saving our own children, or someone else’s?
For Vianne Mauriac, the war becomes simply an agonizing series of choices between the lesser of two evils.
Not a new author, (although fairly new to me, as I have only read one other of her novels), Kristin Hannah has written several books. She describes her motivation in writing this book:
“I really didn’t want to take on World War II France, but when I came across the story of a nineteen-year-old Belgian woman who created an escape route out of Nazi-Occupied France, I was hooked. I had read a lot of books on World War II, but I didn’t know that downed airmen had hiked over the frozen peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains in shoes that didn’t fit, in clothes that weren’t warm enough, with German and Spanish patrols searching for them.
The woman who led them was named Andrée De Jongh and her story—one of heroism and peril and astounding courage—became the inspiration for my novel. Her story led me to other stories of women who joined the Resistance in France. I found literally dozens of memoirs written by women who had become spies and couriers and helped to create the escape network. These women were like action-star heroes.”