I have never been a tremendous fan of Kristin Hannah. Before this, I never felt that her novels had much substance. They are frilly chick-lit with very little real value. The Nightingale, however, took my breath away. It is an incredible novel with a lot to say, and it highlights several parts of history that I feel deserve more attention than they have received in the past.
“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
With courage, grace and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.” –Indiebound
On the surface, this is just a historical fiction novel about two sisters. It’s not really even about the two sisters together or their relationship. Much of the novel follows both of them separately, except in the few places where their paths overlap. Set in France, it has a natural appeal for me because France is one of my favorite places in the world. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels that way. There are so many depths and layers to the story once you delve deeper into the book. I am really pleased with Hannah for making this novel more than just another empty piece of chick-lit.
Several things set this novel apart for me. The first is that the goal of the novel is a lofty and noble one. Both of the women in the novel recognize the horror of what is happening around them. Rather than choosing the safer path of compliance, as many women understandably chose when their men were gone and their homes were invaded, both of these women live dangerous double lives in order to defend their homeland. They rely on their wits and act in the face of overwhelming danger. They stare their fear in the face and they continue onward in spite of it. Their level of courage is hard to match and it made for a really great story.
What I think is most important and enjoyable about this novel, though, is that this story is not entirely fiction. I do not know if Hannah based her story on any one person in history, but I do know that there were people in France doing exactly what these sisters were doing. One historical figure I read about reminded me so much of Vianne that I thought surely Hannah was inspired by the real woman’s story. The uncommon courage that people found within themselves during this very difficult time is inspiring.
What’s more, it changed my perception of the area and its people during the war. Growing up in the United States, we are taught, in both school and at home, that the United States were the big heroes and we saved Europe from Hitler. That might be one way of looking at it, but reading this kind of novel is important because it makes one realize just how difficult it was for the people under Hitler’s thumb to survive, let alone resist. Though my worldview has expanded drastically since I was a child in history class, I still sometimes sense those lingering prejudices and biases. Reading this novel and others (The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is another that will alter your perceptions of people in Nazi-occupied Europe) helps to combat some of that conditioning.
Here are a few things that I already suspected, but which this novel really helped to drive home for me:
-The people of France, or anywhere else in the Axis-occupied territories, were not cowards, and they didn’t just sit around waiting to be rescued. Hitler was not recognized for the threat that he was until it was too late, and he seized his power by degrees. In hindsight, it is easy to recognize his evil, but no one truly knew or believed how bad it would eventually get. And still, people were resisting his influence from the beginning of his power.
-Not all Nazis were evil. Just because they wore the armband and followed orders doesn’t mean all of them truly subscribed to the message. Many of them resisted in any way they could while still doing the minimum necessary to protect themselves and their families.
-Women played a vital role in the war. Many didn’t wear uniforms; they didn’t fire guns; they didn’t die in trenches. But they did more than “keep the home fires burning.” They protected children. They hid those people wanted by the Nazis. They smuggled fallen pilots out of Nazi territory and kept them from being murdered or made prisoners. They risked their lives to subvert the Nazis in countless ways, and it is a relief to see some of those stories being told at last.
This is a powerful, emotional novel that packs a lot of message in just a few hundred pages. It is beautiful, it is deep, and I believe it is an important work of historical fiction–one of those that reminds us that there are many tales to be told, even when we think we’ve heard them all.