Thursday, August 20, 2015

Another Look Back at WWII

I don't intentionally seek out books set during WWII, and sometimes I catch myself wondering if there's anything new to add to the body of fiction set during that time period. Then I pick up another book, and sure enough, I learn something new.

Kristin Hannah's novel The Nightingale that is getting lots of attention right now gave me insight into an aspect of the war I find particularly interesting. When I read All the Light We Cannot See, also set in France, I recalled my own visit to Paris and especially to Normandy, where the main characters move in that tale. Of all my travels, few compare to meeting American veterans of that war visiting St. Mere Eglise on the anniversary of D-Day in 2005.

Hannah's novel takes a hard look at day-to-day life in France after the French government surrendered and Nazi Germany took over.  The story moves back and forth between the lives of two sisters--Isabel Rosignol, young and impetuous, and her sister Vianne Mauriac, a mother and teacher just trying to get by. Isabel, unwilling to stay in her sister's home and behave in a way that would avoid danger once a Nazi officer is billeted in the house, returns to Paris and begins working with the underground, helping downed Allied pilots to escape.

Meanwhile, Vianne must care for her daughter Sophie in difficult conditions while her husband is away in a German prison camp. Not until she sees the threat toward her Jewish friends does she begin her own resistance, taking in Jewish children whose parents are deported, obtaining false identification papers and bringing them to the local Catholic orphanage.

The story is not without narrative flaws.  Many of the situations--the way the characters behave, the many coincidences in the story--can be distracting to an observant reader. Even the frame story set in modern day, as one of the sisters suddenly decides to travel for a reunion in Paris--scheduled for the next day--is a little much to believe. To enjoy the book, though, I just channeled my "willing suspension of disbelief," and let myself learn a little more about the war--and care a lot about those who resisted, the victims and the survivors.

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