I just spent a relaxing week in the cool air of the Pacific Northwest, but most of the time, my thoughts were on World War II Europe. I read a bagful of books on my vacation, and two have consumed my thoughts since finishing them: The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah and A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson.
After I read a review of The Nightingale that compared the book to Sarah’s Key, another historical novel about World War II that troubled my thoughts long after I finished it, I couldn’t resist Kristin Hannah’s new novel. The Nightingale is the story of Vianne and Isabelle, sisters growing up in 1930s France. After the death of their mother, their grief-stricken, war-damaged father abandons them to caretakers. Vianne, the elder by a decade, soon falls in love with Antoine and makes an idyllic life with him at Le Jardin, her mother’s family’s country home. But free-spirited, strong-willed Isabelle struggles to find a place where she belongs. She is kicked out of a succession of boarding schools and finishing schools before making her way to her father’s Parisian apartment. Now almost twenty, Isabelle insists on staying in the city over her father’s objections. War is raging in other parts of Europe, but like many French people, Isabelle and Vianne believe the Maginot line will hold, protecting France from Nazi aggression.
And then the Germans invade. Soon both sisters are engulfed in the fight to survive Nazi occupation. Antoine goes off to fight. He is captured and held in a German POW camp leaving Vianne struggling to feed her daughter Sophie as rations grow increasingly scarce. Meanwhile, Isabelle joins a torrent of people fleeing Paris, dodging German strafing attacks as she travels hundreds of miles on foot to the shelter of Vianne’s home. The sisters settle in, determined to survive the duration, but as each month passes, circumstances grow increasingly dire. There’s never enough food. The Germans begin rounding up Jewish neighbors. The sisters chop up heirloom furniture for firewood. They sell off valuables for cash to buy food and medicine. They are forced to billet a German officer in their home. And they must engage in the complex calculus about how much to cooperate with the Germans and what that cooperation might cost their neighbors, friends and loved ones.
Both Vianne and Isabelle look deep within themselves and find reservoirs of strength they did not know they possessed. Each finds her own way to survive the war, and each finds her own path to resisting German domination. Isabelle joins the French resistance movement, first distributing propaganda leaflets and then leading downed Allied pilots to safety over the Pyrennes Mountains. And Vianne finds her own resistance fight. Both sisters grapple with the profound moral dilemmas that people face when engulfed by war. Both survive the war, and each finds her own form of redemption.
The novel paints a grim picture of the relentless hardships that faced civilians living under Nazi occupation. Thanks to Hannah’s flawless timing and careful plotting, I gained a visceral understanding of the incredible courage it took to become a resistance fighter. These men and women battled the Nazis long after their leaders had capitulated and collaborated in the oppression of their own people. Intricately constructed with a surprise twist at the end, this story about ordinary women who fought German aggression moved me as few novels have, and I thought about Vianne and Isabelle for days after I turned the last page.
World War II has apparently captured the imaginations of many novelists lately, and the next novel in my stack (er–my Kindle queue) was Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. Last year, I was captivated by Atkinson’s exquisitely crafted Life After Life, a story about a British woman named Ursula and her family’s experiences in the years spanning the two World Wars. If you’ve read Life After Life, you know how skilled Atkinson is at playing with narrative in ways that deeply reveal her characters and challenge the reader to grapple with multiple realities. Like Life After Life, A God in Ruins is a shape shifting book, playing with point of view and chronology, sometimes offering us Teddy’s point of view, sometimes that of his daughter or grandchildren, sometimes placing us in the novel’s present, at other moments in its past or future, and sometimes in present and future all at the same moment. It sounds confusing, but Atkinson succeeds in entrancing the reader as she explores the nature of the fictional form.
Atkinson calls A God in Ruins “a companion piece” (455) to Life After Life. The book is about Ursula’s younger brother Teddy, and many members of her cast of characters will be familiar to readers of the earlier novel.
When Britain enters World War II, Teddy becomes a pilot in the Royal Air Force. He is assigned to the strategic bombing campaign, captaining a Halifax bomber on dozens of missions over Germany. Like Vianne and Isabelle in The Nightingale, the war confronts Teddy with a relentless string of losses, from his father’s death by natural causes to the gruesome deaths of dozens of comrades and crew members during the fighting to the death of his wife and his sisters after the war.
Atkinson says that A God in Ruins is about the “Fall (of Man. From grace.)” (458) She adds, “War is Man’s greatest fall from grace, . . . especially when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots.” (459) The novel tries to untie some of these knots. By 1943, the British bombing campaign shifts from its focus on military targets to attacks on the civilian population in an effort to break popular German support of the war effort, and Teddy finds himself agonizing over the morality of his actions. To what extent did German aggression justify resistance in any form? Which targets were justified to counter German aggression? Was attacking civilian targets a necessary means of defeating the Germans? How does one determine the lines between right and wrong in the face of barbarous cruelty?
Americans have always liked to think of World War II as a just war—a good war—but both of these authors force us to consider whether, as Atkinson put it, “our war on savagery did not, in the end, become itself savage as we attacked the very people—the old, the young, women—that civilization is supposed to defend.” (460)
Isabelle, Vianne, and Teddy all grappled with these moral dilemmas. Each was scarred, not only by the actions of the enemy but also by the choices they themselves made. They force us to grapple with more existential questions: Is there any such thing as a just war? If so, what makes a war just, and how do those on the just side draw moral boundaries for their wartime behavior? And if not, what is our responsibility as individuals to work to prevent all wars?
For me, though, these novels helped me contend with more personal questions. In middle age, as I’ve experienced some of the painful losses that are part of life, I’ve been preoccupied by this question: how do people who sustain wave after wave of devastating losses endure? What keeps them from becoming hollow automatons, going through life’s motions? What prevents them from giving up in the face of grief, succumbing to rage that destroys those around them or to suicide, rage turned inward? How do people find hope? How do they move beyond unimaginable loss? Each of the main characters in these novels moves beyond loss to find hope, to endure, and even to transcend. Once again, I am struck by the power of art to convey the most profound truths from human history. In these novels, we learn essential truths about love, hope, healing, and the capacity for redemption.
For additional reading, you may want to check out these titles from your local library or your favorite indie bookstore. Or buy them on-line from Hub City Book Shop.
A Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France, by Caroline Moorehead
The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis by Matthew Cobb
Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany, 1942-1945, by Randall Hansen