Shannon L. Fogg
Missouri University of Science & Technology
Within the last decade, a number of novels focusing on daily life in France under the Occupation have been published in English and have drawn the attention of a wide reading public. Starting with Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française (2006) and followed by Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key (2007) and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014), these novels all spent weeks on bestseller lists.  The latest contribution to this wartime historical fiction wave is Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, which weaves together the story of two sisters in wartime France. Hannah’s book is a bit sappier and more contrived than its predecessors and contains elements similar to the other works of fiction. It lacks the beautiful writing style of both Némirovsky and Doerr, but the author manages to capture some events and atmosphere of the war years that could spark classroom discussion.
The book opens in 1995 with an elderly, terminally-ill woman reflecting on her life. It is not until the end of the novel, however, that the reader learns whether the narrator is Vianne Mauriac, a married mother of a young daughter and small-town teacher, or her impulsive and much younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol (the last names provide a hint to who is the Nightingale). Kristin Hannah uses this as a literary tool to build suspense and provide an emotional ending to the tale of two sisters who followed different paths during the war. The use of two main characters also allows her to outline competing narratives that are familiar to scholars of wartime France: rural versus urban; collaboration versus Resistance, forgetting versus remembering the war years.
Much like Sarah’s Key, The Nightingale moves between the present and the past to tell its story. It begins in a small village in the Loire Valley in August 1939 as France prepares for war. Vianne tries to ignore the signs of war until faced with the reality of her husband Antoine’s military mobilization. Isabelle, on the other hand, has been kicked out of the last of a long line of boarding schools and returns to Paris to live with her emotionally damaged, Great War veteran father. When the war breaks out, Isabelle joins the exode with instructions to go live with Vianne and her young daughter in Carriveau. But eighteen-year-old Isabelle has other ideas: rather than run, she wants to become a war hero like the Belgian nurse Edith Cavell. She sees war as a great adventure and as an opportunity to finally do something with her life. She is separated from her travelling party as the group makes its way south and wanders into the woods where she meets Gaëtan Dubois, a criminal and communist who, apparently, had been freed from prison as the Germans approached.
It is here that we first see the novel’s main characteristics that might be viewed as either an advantage or a disadvantage in the classroom setting. Over the course of the book, the two sisters experience just about everything possibly associated with World War II in France. In interviews, Kristin Hannah explains that the story was inspired by the real-life Resistance activities of Andrée de Jongh, a young Belgian woman who helped downed Allied airmen escape Occupied Europe through what became known as the Comet Line. Hannah views the book as a novel about women in the French Resistance, stating: “Quite simply, the heroism of the women of the French Resistance captured my imagination […] These courageous women also put themselves directly in harm’s way to save others. Too many of them paid a terrible, unimaginable price for their heroism. They were, like so many women in wartime, largely forgotten after the war’s end. There were no parades for them, very few medals, and almost no mention in the history books. It felt like an oversight to me, something that needed to be corrected. These women had risked their lives at a time when the smallest mistake could get one killed.” So although the book is meant to celebrate women in the French Resistance, it does not focus solely on the Resistance. Instead, the novel provides a brief, and often forced, survey of many different aspects of life under the Occupation.
This may be used as a teaching tool, encouraging students to learn more about a specific aspect of the novel or researching its historical accuracy. For example, Isabelle’s experience with the exode covers just a few pages but readers see the difficulties refugees faced as the car runs out of petrol, she continues the journey on foot, and is bombed by the Germans. Némirovsky’s Suite Française provides a more nuanced and thorough recounting of this period of French history, but the short version in Hannah may be effectively paired with scholarly writing such as excerpts from Hanna Diamond’s Fleeing Hitler or Nicole Dombrowski Risser’s France under Fire or Women and War in the Twentieth Century. However, if a professor wanted to use the novel as an example of wartime life in general, it would be a bit of a stretch.
The exode is just the beginning of the historical references. The sisters listen to Pétain’s speech calling for an armistice on the radio. Vianne is relieved, believing the surrender demonstrated Pétain’s desire to “save lives and preserve their nation and their way of life” (p. 65) while Isabelle is immediately anti-Nazi, putting the two women at odds. The Germans then arrive in Carriveau and occupy the small village due to the town’s airfield, and Isabelle finds her purpose after hearing Charles de Gaulle’s call for Resistance on June 18. She immediately begins seeking a way to join the Resistance. When the Germans announce their harsh occupation conditions and Captain Wolfgang Beck is billeted at Le Jardin, Vianne accepts the situation in order to protect her daughter and her home. These sections could be paired with translations of documents including Pétain’s radio speeches or Charles de Gaulle’s BBC address while Vianne’s reaction to the German in her home could be used in tandem with Vercors’ much more sober Le Silence de la Mer.
Isabelle, however, rebels against the German-imposed changes and longs to flee Carriveau. The Germans impose a curfew and confiscate radios, threatening anyone who disobeys with death. One day, after spending hours queuing for meager food rations, Isabelle finds a piece of chalk in the street and commits her first act of resistance: scrawling a “V” for Victory on an anti-Jewish propaganda poster. She is caught by a passerby who takes her to an abandoned store where she is introduced to a group of Communist men who are forming a Resistance group. She is immediately enlisted to distribute underground Resistance tracts, although the group is wary of her impetuous reputation. Meanwhile, Vianne turns over the names of Carriveau’s Jews, Communists, homosexuals, freemasons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (including her neighbor and best friend) in exchange for information about her Prisoner of War husband.
While all these events did occur during the Occupation, here – and throughout the novel – Hannah takes liberties with the timing and likelihood of events. For example, official rationing did not begin until September 1940 and the first Jewish Statute appeared in October. The Nazis imposed a curfew on Jews and confiscated Jewish-owned radios beginning in 1942. The Communist men mention the Musée de l’Homme Resistance cell which was not organized until July 1940, and they are distributing tracts in support of de Gaulle, ignoring the divisions and lack of coordination between Resistance groups, especially early in the Occupation. There were not large Jewish communities in many rural towns before the exode. The coincidence of all these events happening in the middle of June 1940 is not likely, but that is the advantage of fiction.
The first section of the book ends when the Resistance group Isabelle has been working with asks her to deliver a message to contacts in Paris and to remain there to serve as the group’s letter box to exchange information. Vianne is convinced that Isabelle has been sneaking around in order to meet a Communist lover and sends her sister off, still unaware of Isabelle’s clandestine activities. While this first section establishes the wartime conditions, the second part focuses more specifically on Resistance. Isabelle returns to Paris to find her father working for the German High Command and encounters her first downed British airman. Conveniently, Isabelle has connections to a Basque goat herder (again, a stretch: the Basque are more likely to raise sheep) who will help her guide the airman and others across the Pyrenees on foot. She also discovers that her father is not German collaborator, but rather uses his job to forge papers, including the false identity papers that Isabelle will carry in the name of Juliette Gervaise, code name the Nightingale. (It seems rather unlikely that the Resistance would choose to give her a code name that is exactly the same as her real last name, but Kristin Hannah freely admits to artistic license.)
With Isabelle out of the house in Carriveau, the relationship between Vianne and Beck begins to change. They share meals and fine wine, and Beck promises that Vianne and Sophie will not go hungry as long as he is in the house, which is particularly important when Vianne is fired from her teaching position for supporting a colleague accused of distributing anti-German propaganda. Readers will find that the growing relationship and understanding between the French woman and the German man is similar to the one between Lucile Angellier and Bruno von Falk in Suite Française.
The major focus of this section is on the Nightingale’s dangerous and grueling treks over the mountains to lead the airmen to Spain and safety. The crossings are juxtaposed with the suffering Vianne faces at home due to the extreme shortages of the war years. Her worries are compounded by the increasingly harsh measures that affect her best friend Rachel as a Jew (the timing is off here again – Rachel is shocked to find she has to wear a yellow Star of David in May 1942; stars were not required in Occupied France until December 1942). Even Isabelle becomes concerned with the plight of Jews when she takes a clerical job at the Préfecture de Police (the Germans and the French are both implicated and used interchangeably in this section). Her job was to sort index cards of Jews into piles of French and foreign-born in preparation for “Operation Spring Wind”; in other words, she was sorting cards for the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up. With this knowledge, the Rossignols hide one Jewish neighbor and attempt to help another woman and her children, but are unable to warn them before the police arrive. Isabelle then walks to the Vel’ d’Hiv and sees the horror of families being herded inside. (Again, readers will recognize scenes here reminiscent of Sarah’s Key.)
The book continues with a series of tragic events: Vianne’s young, Jewish neighbor is killed trying to cross the demarcation line and her mother is deported after entrusting Vianne with her young son. The Allies, meanwhile, are bombing Carriveau and Isabelle continues to try to aid fallen pilots. Isabelle hides an injured airman in Vianne’s cellar, where he is discovered by Beck. A fight ensues, the Nazi officer is killed, and Isabelle is shot in the struggle. Vianne makes up a story to explain Beck’s disappearance and her “good German” will be replaced in her home by a “bad Nazi,” Sturmbannführer Von Richter. Isabelle recovers from her wound, but her Resistance network is discovered and she is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo to find out the name of the “Nightingale,” who they assume is a man. In order to save Isabelle, her father claims to be the head of the Nightingale network and is executed, but Isabelle is still deported to Ravensbrück. Von Richter also begins to rape Vianne on a regular basis, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy just before the Germans withdraw from Carriveau.
But all is not negative: On the eve of the German occupation of the Free Zone, Vianne witnesses another roundup in Carriveau and a Jewish friend implores her to save her son from deportation. Vianne takes the child to the local orphanage run by Catholic nuns and thus begins Vianne’s involvement in the Resistance as the rescuer of Jewish children with the help of the Mother Superior and a Jewish aid organization. Vianne’s husband will also return from captivity after the war. Rather than discussing the hardships they all faced, they decide “Maybe it’s best to just forget the past and go on” (p. 395). They search and wait for their loved ones to return only to discover that their Jewish friends had been murdered and there is no record of Isabelle. The Mauriacs are raising their neighbor’s child as their own son until one day representatives from the OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants – a Jewish aid organization) arrive to reunite Ari with his Jewish relatives in America. He is immediately removed from the home, adding to the heartbreak. Isabelle does return from the camp, but she is weak and ill and will die in her lover’s arms.
The Nightingale will not be remembered as a great piece of literature, but students may enjoy the action-filled plot and there are enough historical references to start a conversation on any number of subjects. Certainly one would have to place it within the context of the debates over Resistance/Collaboration/Accommodation/Survival and the role of women during the war. The novel’s focus on the Jews would also have to be historicized. It would also provide ample opportunity to discuss the memory of the war both historically and within the context of the current interest in the topic. While bringing some lesser-known aspects of the war to a larger audience, it still reinforces some of the myths that scholars are continually challenging (especially the idea of France as a nation of resisters). It provides more details of daily lives, but the ordinary is often over-shadowed by the extraordinary. But as historian Dominique Veillon has written, during the war “le banal devient extraordinaire.”
Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale, London and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015
- Irène Némirovsky translated by Sandra Smith, Suite Française (London: Vintage Books, 2006); Tatiana de Rosnay, Sarah’s Key (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007); Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (New York: Scribner, 2014).
- See de Jongh’s obituary in the New York Times for a brief synopsis of her wartime activities: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/18/world/europe/18jongh.html?_r=0 <last accessed June 2, 2016>.
- See http://www.bookweb.org/news/qa-kristin-hannah-author-february%E2%80%99s-1-indie-next-list-pick (last accessed June 21, 2016). Scholarly work on women in the French Resistance includes Paula Schwartz, “Partisanes and Gender Politics in Vichy France.” French Historical Studies 16:1 (Spring 1989): 126-51 and “Redefining Resistance: Women’s Activism in Wartime France in Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars edited by Margaret Randolph Higonnet et al. (New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1987) and Margaret Collins Weitz, Sisters in the Resistance: How Women Fought to Free France, 1940-1945 (New York: J. Wiley, 1995). See also Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (London: Faber & Faber, 2015). The cover of the paperback version features a young woman toting an automatic rifle.
- Hannah Diamond, Fleeing Hitler: France 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). Nicole Dombrowski, Women and War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With or Without Consent (New York: Garland, 1999) and Nicole Dombrowski Risser, France under Fire: German Invasion, Civilian Flight and Family Survival during World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
- Audio versions of various speeches (including speeches by Pétain and de Gaulle) are available at http://wartimespeeches.net/content_04.html (last accessed November 7, 2016). An English version of Pétain’s speech of June 17 is available at http://artsweb.bham.ac.uk/vichy/english.htm (last accessed November 7, 2016) and a translated version of Charles de Gaulle’s June 18 speech is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1940/1940-06-18b.html (last accessed November 7, 2016). See also Vercors, Le Silence de la Mer (New York: Pantheon, 1951).
- On the Basque region, see Sandra Ott, The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981) and Ott, War, Judgment, and Memory in the Basque Borderlands, 1914-1945 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2008).
- Dominique Veillon, Vivre et survivre en France 1939-1947 (Paris: Editions Payot & Rivages, 1995).