Two sides of the coin

Every now and then you read a book and it really affects you. It might be profound and sad, it might be touching, or funny, or the story draws you in completely and the characters stay with you for days.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you A Train in Winter by Carolyn Moorehead and The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The topic is the role of French women in the Resistance during WWII and both books have sections that describe the atrocities that happened to these women in the German concentration camps.

I read A Train in Winter (ATIW) last year in May that was a tough book to read but I learned something I didn’t know before and I gained a lot of new respect for the type of people that sacrifice their lives for what they believe in.

Then, imagine my surprise, I read The Nightingale (TN), a book that was a popular best seller, and is a romanticized account of much the same topic, in part, but from a fictional point of view. It was interesting to compare them. ATIW was bleaker and a lot more raw when describing the day to day danger of covert operations or dealing with occupiers who could be brutally abrupt and punishing at the drop of a hat or when describing the horrific things that went on in concentration camps. The novel, of course, had a romantic thread through the story but did throw some light into the concentration camps as well, and it didn’t sugar coat it but also didn’t go into as extensive an account as ATIW because that’s not what the primary focus of the novel was. The two books did complement each other, with “Here’s a story” on one side and “Here’s what really happened” on the other. I’d recommend both books but the atrocities in ATIW are not for the faint of heart.

With that in mind, I will post my reviews here:

atiwA Train in Winter: An Extraordinary Story of Women, Friendship, and Resistance in Occupied France
by Carolyn Moorehead
I learned about an aspect of WWII from this book that I didn’t know before, the role of women in the French Resistance and what happened to the ones that were sent to concentration camps. I knew there were women in the Resistance but I didn’t know there was a specific camp that they sent the French women to. I didn’t know the kinds of things that the women did to help oppose the German occupation of France, mainly Paris in these accounts.

This is not an easy book to read. The things that happened to the women in the camps are indescribable, horrific, tragic, horrendous, nightmarish… there really are no words that do it justice. The author tells it like it was, gleaning from research, letters and diaries, and her interviews with the handful of women that were in the camps. The stories of how they managed to survive are just as brutal as the stories of the torture and deaths.

The book starts off slowly, introducing a great number of women who were involved with the grassroots resistance movement pretty much as soon as the Germans occupied most of France, Paris being the main focus. The women that were involved were all ages from young teenagers to senior citizens. They were messengers, printers, distributors of posters and pamphlets, providers of safe houses and hiding places as well is participants in sabotage sometimes. The police methodically gathered evidence and eventually zeroed in on them. They were captured and sent to concentration camps, work camps and the like.

From there, the book gets dark and heavy with the awful things that happened but the survival instinct and the spirit of many of the women is astonishing. The author describes how they got through it, supported each other, adjusted to life after the war, or not, how it affected not only the women but their families and the families of the women that did not come home. Many of the women were awarded the Legion of Honour for their services. Some helped convict many collaborators and Germans for war crimes. It’s a tough read but a very interesting aspect of history.

tnThe Nightingale – Kristin Hannah

Viann and Isabelle are sisters with very different personalities. Their mother died when they were young and their father sent them away, unable to cope. Viann lives with her husband and daughter in a village in France while Isabelle is a handful, continually being ejected from one school after another. World War II arrives and everything changes. Isabelle spends the war working for the Resistance and Viann must keep her and her daughter alive while her husband is away. She must billet two German officers over the course of the war. One is a decent man, the other is not. There is danger, starvation, risk, fear, regrets and tragedy.

Isabelle’s story somewhat crosses over with a non-fiction book I read earlier in the year about French women that worked for the Resistance and went to a concentration camp which was an interesting aspect to the novel. Viann finds her courage, Isabelle is driven to do anything she can to work against the Germans. The sisters are continually estranged through most of the story. The author seems to have done some very good research not only into the types of things that the women in the resistance did and what kinds of things happened to them in the camps but also what it was like to deal with the occupation, food shortages and the daily fear. There is very good character development and the story kept me turning the pages.