The book is about women, brave women who were often unsung heroes, but beneath it all is a story about love, what nourishes it and what undermines it. It is about love withheld and love given freely, about loyalty and fidelity. It is about what once was unimaginable brutality, as well.
Isabelle Rossignol was a spunky, feisty independent child and she grew into a young lady full of spirit and determination. Her older sister was the more cautious one. Each in their own way was a heroine, although one came late to that party. These women, and others like them, were called upon, by events beyond their control, to bear witness to atrocities they could or would not prevent. While nationalism, a deep love of her France, initially drove the younger to action, the elder was driven first by the need to protect her family, by the need to protect her daughter from the Nazi occupiers, and so she acquiesced to their presence; but then she was driven by the need to protect her daughter from a world that would be created by them, and so she began to resist them as well, to the extent that she was able.
What makes this book so special is its approach to the time. Although it is about World War II, it is not about the nitty gritty of the war itself, but rather it is about the French Underground and their effort to defeat the Germans, even as the French Government surrendered to Germany and succumbed to the Nazi way of life. Its emphasis is on the women of that war who fought alongside the men, not in the trenches but in the resistance, the women who endangered their own safety and lives to save others and fight back against Hitler’s Third Reich. They all faced imminent danger bravely and were often unsung heroes.
Many French men and women went along with Germany’s occupation happily, some simply to keep the effects of the war from their own doors, a notion of which they were quickly disabused. It was a kind of fool’s errand; “when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas!” Those that cooperated with the Germans to protect themselves and even those that collaborated, soon faced brick walls. There would be no further opportunities or assistance offered to them for their safety. Their options would run out as soon as there were no other victims to be had, but themselves. Hitler’s net of hate and savagery was broad with tentacles that extended into every avenue of life. Those that defied Hitler did so by risking their own lives to prevent the loss of others. They were brave and selfless, and they believed that Hitler’s war was reprehensible. They would not learn how reprehensible for years.
The novel is centered on the relationship and points of view of Vianne and Isabelle, two sisters separated in age by about a decade. Isabelle was the younger of the two. When their mother died, their father fell apart and abandoned them both, leaving them with a cold, stern woman to bring them up. He was never the same toward them, growing evermore distant and aloof and drinking to excess. First, it was his experience in the Great War, WWI, and then it was the death of his wife that broke him and altered him beyond repair.
Hannah weaves a story about the women left behind with all of the responsibility of the home, the family, the food, the bills, and worst of all, dealing with the enemy soldiers who were, at first, polite, but later criminally abusive. When the Wehrmacht’s influence waned (the kinder and gentler of the German military organizations, if indeed any term like that can even be used to refer to anything Hitler designed), and the Gestapo became more powerful, with its sadistic SS soldiers, drunk on unimpeded power and violence, the women of Carriaveau were at their mercy; they were all required to do what they had to in order to survive and keep their families protected. There simply was no one else to call upon to help them, except, in some cases, for their church, and often, that was not a guarantee of safety or aid, when it came to Germany’s inhumanity to man. First fear immobilized everyone, but as time passed and the situation grew more heinous, they realized they could not simply stand by any longer. Vianne, who had ridiculed her younger sister’s efforts, finally took a stand against the heartless treatment of men women and children for nothing more than their political and religious beliefs, their mental health condition, or their sexual predilections, by saving the lives of orphaned children. She enlisted the help of her Church. It was very dangerous for her because she was forced to billet a cruel, malicious officer of the Third Reich who often abused her. She finally put herself at risk, even with him in her home. She also endangered her own daughter, Sophie, and her best friend’s son, Ari (Daniel), whom she cared for and protected, as well. When his mother was sent to a camp for being a Jew, she promised Rachel she would look after him. She pretended she had adopted him from her husband’s cousin whose wife had died in childbirth.
This novel is a masterpiece because it is a straightforward tale of courage and love, sacrifice and devotion. It is told from the point of view of the women left behind, the women who had to survive and fight back without the tools to do it effectively, but who rose to the challenge. So, it is not your typical World War II story or your typical story about the Holocaust’s immorality and the nature of its evil. The savagery of the Germans is told through the eyes of these women generally considered the weaker sex. They wanted to be relevant but the risk to them was even greater than to the men. The hardships they bore, and the suffering they endured will cause the readers’ eyes to fill. It was almost impossible to resist and yet almost impossible not to hate and want to resist. The author clearly showed the conflicts the soldiers dealt with and the conflicts of the French citizens. To survive, they had to look away, help the Germans, in fact, or be killed themselves.
Except for the despicable group of Germans who were nothing more than brutes and sadists, no one character was completely all bad or all good. Even the German soldiers, some anyway, and some citizens too, showed mercy to the extent they were able. Most, however, simply obeyed orders, even the French, especially the French policemen. They all thought they would be spared if they obliged the Germans, but it was like a creeping fungus, it kept sucking up more and more of the community and the people and disobedience led to monstrous retribution so the situation was fiendish.
All of the key elements of the war were touched upon, but it never felt overdone; rather, the clear cut and informative presentation provided only what was pertinent to the narrative. It never seemed exaggerated or cloying. I knew that there was a model Concentration Camp in Terezin, and that there were several death camps and crematoria, but I learned that there was also a camp designated just for women, in Ravensbruck. Kristin Hannah did a masterful job of research and showed not only the plight of the women during the war, but she showed their courage and competence in the face of all obstacles. She was inspired by the true story of a woman named Andree De Jongh who performed heroically during the war. So much of survival depended on choice, timing, kindness, and the sacrifice of others, and the message in the book is loud and clear that women did their share and then some. The story is very deliberately narrated by the audio reader, Polly Stone, who never over emoted or made the reading about herself. She simply presented the story in a pitch perfect way.