Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale a Moving Look at World War II France

Kristin Hannah
St. Martin's, 438 pages, #978-0312577223
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I didn't plan to read a lot of books about World War Two this year, but it was inevitable given that 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory over fascism.  World War II is often dubbed the "good war," and it has also turned out to be a very good conflict for skilled novelists. Count Kristin Hannah among them. The Nightingale is set in Nazi-controlled France. (Note: France fell to Hitler's blitzkrieg in May of 1940. The northern part was directly controlled by Germany and was called Occupied France; the south—Provence and adjacent regions–was the "Free Zone," though the government in Vichy was only nominally governed by Marshal Pétain, who was little more than a Nazi puppet. In 1942, the Vichy fiction ended and Germany assumed direct control over the entire of France.)

The theme of Hannah's novel is nicely summed near the end when an elderly woman (one of our protagonists), recollects: "In love we find out who we want to be; in war, we find out who we are." The book centers on two sisters: married, cautious Vianne, who lives in the Loire Valley near the border of Occupied and Vichy France; and headstrong 18-year-old Isabel, whose greatest knack prior to the war involved being booted from a series of boarding schools that failed to make a young 'lady' of her. Isabel had the bad timing to wash out of her final school weeks before the Nazis arrived in Paris, where she   is living with her broken-down, widowed, and drink-prone father–a World War One hero who wants no part of sharing his living quarters, least of all with the outspoken Isabel, an omnipresent danger once Paris falls. Vianne doesn't want Isabel either–she's a village teacher trying to to feed her daughter, Sophie, while her husband is in a POW camp after the Fall of France. Even worse, Occupied France is subject to a quartering act and Vianne's home is one of those that must house Nazi officers.

Hannah builds on the time-honored sibling rivalry theme; at least on the surface, Isabel and Vianne are oil and water, with Isabel becoming the book's namesake "Nightingale," a secret Resistance operative who helps smuggle shot-down Allied pilots out of France and into Spain. The descriptions of her activities are page turning and harrowing; they are also totally believable as her character is modeled upon a real heroine: Belgium's Andrée de Jongh. In many ways, though, Vianne is the more complex character, as she must walk a tightrope whose terminus she cannot see. Can she trust Captain Beck, the first officer who billets in her house? He seems kind, but is he? Are his questions innocent, or sinister? Can she even respond to kindness without being viewed as a collaborator? Moreover, she's hemmed in by a dilemma that transcends war: to what lengths will/should a mother go to protect her child? How should she react when that child comes to admire her aunt's chutzpah over her mother's caution? Indeed, how does one explain to an elementary-aged child just what's happening in her nation and village?

That village, Carriveau (possibly real-life Touraine) is also central to the novel. Its border town setting means that Vianne's and Isabel's worlds will collide at some point. The decision is, as an old union song phrased it, which side are you on? Hannah's descriptions of Vianne working her way through moral dilemmas would do proud a modern values clarification expert. She also does a wonderful job of drawing out the tension and not resolving matters in easy or formulaic ways; in fact, we don't actually know how a lot of things are settled until near the end when we find ourselves in 1995.

Hannah has done her research well and presents a solid portrait of the French Underground, acts of everyday resistance on the part of non-combatants, and the confusion that French people must have felt in the countryside. In Paris and other cities, the Nazis were an impersonal and ever-present irritant; not so in rural France, where citizens had both more personal contact, yet less frequent dealings with their occupiers. Give Hannah credit also for delving into a shameful event the French have only recently confronted: the Rafle du Vélodrome d'Hiver. Shortly after the Vichy government was dissolved in 1942, more than 13,000 Jews–4,000 of whom were children–in the south of France were rounded up and placed in a cycling stadium until they were transported to prison camps. Few survived.*

The Nightingale is emotionally impactful, thrilling in its action scenes, and honestly ordinary is its depictions of everyday life and universal dilemmas. Add this one to your list.

Rob Weir

* The film Sarah's Key (2010) is a deeply moving take on the Vel d'Hiv (as it's usually called) roundup of Jews in Provence.

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