“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This story is an homage to the incredible courage and endurance of French women during World War II. It tells the story of two sisters Viane and Isabelle and is such an engrossing read I was hard-pressed to do much else until I finished the book. It divides the time between Nazi occupied Paris and the countryside of Le Jardin in the Loire Valley and shows the courage and strength of these two very different sisters and the extraordinary circumstances of war and how they are compelled to act.

The narrator at the beginning of the book sets up a central theme of the novel with the statement: “If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.”

It starts in 1995, with an elderly widow moving into an Oregon nursing home at the urging of her son, Julien. She receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war and she decides to attend without telling her son. Cut to spring, 1940, where the world of the two sisters is upended. The Germans take Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viane’s farm in the Loire valley. Her younger sister, Isabelle, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris.

As the hardships increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of German officers, Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance and volunteers to shepherd downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle is eventually captured. Meanwhile, Viane’s journey is different and she moves from passive to active resistance and her story is no less dramatic and just as wrenching. We see how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews.

These cataclysmic events are depicted by a skilled storyteller and provide a better understanding of the harsh reality that was the Nazi occupation of France with all the horror, sorrow and heroism and leave you wondering how you would act in such circumstances. With richly drawn characters, attention to historical detail, harrowing, haunting, moving and poignant  this book will stay with you long after you finish the last page.

Luba Sawczyn, Manager, Graham Public Library, Alamance County Public Libraries.