I was completely captivated by this story of a French village and the changes during the rise of the Vichy government during World War 2.
Julien, his sister and parents have left Paris and are living near his grandfather in southern France when the war begins. At first Julien has many adjustments to make. Previously, Julien has only visited his grandfather in the summer time. Now he has a new school to attend and he finds to his dismay that there is already a hierarchy set in place, one that does not seem to welcome ‘city kids’. It doesn’t help that his family has taken in a Jewish boy of his own age.
“Papa thought he’d given Julien a great present. Taken all his happy boyhood memories and wrapped them in a brown paper package and tied it up with string. Papa, I know where I’m not wanted. While Mama and Magali unpacked the boxes, he’d gone down into town and seen the flat, cold eyes of the guys his age. The stares that told him not to come closer. Not to say hi.”
Right from the start, the reader’s sympathy is caught up in this young boy’s struggle to adapt. Julien loves soccer but he is excluded from the after-school games, merely because he is a stranger. It is his own experiences, plus the stories that his grandfather tells of his Huguenot background with his own family having to flee persecution, that influence Julien in exercising compassion later on when Nina and her brother Gustav have fled to their village also, hoping to find refuge.
This story caught me up from the very start and didn’t let go! “How Huge the Night” brings to life the events of World War 2; the dread that so many must have experienced as the news became darker and darker until finally the worst has happened and Paris is occupied… but it doesn’t stop there and there is even worse to come.
“Papa turned on the radio. Julien shut his eyes.
Monsieur Hitler had accepted the surrender of France today, the voice said; the armistice had been signed. The full terms would be published soon. They included, among other provisions, German occupation and control of the north of the country and the western coast, but left the south as an unoccupied zone.
It took him several seconds, but finally he understood the voice had really said it.
Benjamin was on his feet, his mouth open blinking with tears in his eyes. Papa was gripping Mama’s hand. Mama was crying. Julien was breathing hard, they’re not coming, they’re not coming! He stood, his eyes wide open, and suddenly he laughed.”
There are many themes in this book, and the writing itself is engaging and illuminating. How far do we go to help someone in need? can we really love our enemy, and how does that look? How much are we willing to risk? Can we truly ever know what someone else feels?
“Maria,” she whispered. “I was right. Wasn’t I. About the evil men.”
“Yes,” said Maria quietly.
“But I think maybe. Maybe.” She looked Maria in the eye, hard, searching. There was so much light. “Maria… is there a God?”
Maria looked at her, her dark eyes deep and steady. Then she smiled…. ‘I didn’t tell you the end of the story,’ she said…
“Is it – true?” Nina whispered. The light said it might be. The light said this woman would not lie to her, ever, while the earth went round. “Am I … safe… here?”
Maria bent over her. Here eyes were very dark. “Nina,” she said, “I am not God. I cannot say, ‘You are safe.’ But I can tell you two things: There is a God who loves you. And if they take you, they must take me too.”
The authors, a mother-daughter team, explain at the conclusion how the fictional village of Tanieux is based on the factual village of Le Chambon.
“Basically, Le Chambon, a village of 3,000 people in the plateau country of central France, far from everything that mattered, over the course of the war, saved the lives of more than 3,000 Jews.”
What a fascinating story. It will stay with me for a long, long time.