The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is a must read for anyone who has never read this historical novel that was first published in 2015. While people are locked down they might want to pick up this novel, which is very relevant to today considering that Yom HaShoah, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes Remembrance Day, has just been observed. The plot has two sisters who are both heroic and martyrs for their unselfish acts.
Vianne and Isabelle embarked on their own dangerous path that included survival, courageousness, love, and resilience. They showed incredible strength during these terrible times in Nazi-occupied France.
The story begins in 1995 as one of the sisters tells what happened to her and her sister starting in 1939 France. In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. When a German, Captain Beck, requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter Sophie must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food, money or hope, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive. Through her eyes, readers understand the brutality of the Germans as they loot, steal, beat, and starve the French population. Even worse, the French Jews were being deported to concentration camps. This is where Vianne decides she must risk her and her daughter’s life by taking in a Jewish baby, her best friend’s son, when his mother is sent to a concentration camp. After Captain Beck disappears another German, a Gestapo Agent, Sturmbann Fuhrer Von Richter, requisitions their home, brutally forcing Vianne to acquiesce to his male desires. Knowing she can no longer stay on the sidelines, Vianne decides to save nineteen Jewish children by hiding them in a convent and creating false identity papers. But her heroics are personal as well, enduring severe brutality to keep her children alive and to find word about her captured husband.
Her sister, Isabelle, is no less brave. She meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France. As she falls in love with him, she feels betrayed when he deserts her at her sister’s home. Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others. She refuses to accept France’s surrender despite her sister’s pleading to stay quiet and safe. As things take an unexpected turn, she decides to take matters into her own hands, and joins an underground group, The Resistance, that risks their lives to fight the Nazis. From now on, she becomes Juliette Gervaise, code name the Nightingale. Isabelle volunteers for dangerous duty, shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain.
After reading this book readers will understand what the French citizens and Jews went through at the hands of the Nazis. A quote by Vianne summarizes how people behave when confronted by adversity, “In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” This is not just another World War II novel, but delves into how women made an imprint on the war. Having been given a great deal of hype, a reader might question if it can live up to its publicity. It actually did more than that, it surpassed it, and is still surpassing it.
Elise Cooper: What was your thought process in developing the storyline?
Kristin Hannah: It started out to be Isabelle’s story. My original idea was to write about those women who helped downed Allied airmen get out of occupied France during World War II. As I was doing the research I found out about the hidden Jewish children. Ultimately, I decided I couldn’t write a book about heroic women of WWII without including this storyline. When I had the book tour for this event, I had people coming up to me who told me they were a hidden child. Interestingly, it is still not talked about a lot.
EC: Why the setting in France?
KH: Because the original story was about the downed airmen and that primarily happened in France. I also read Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay that told a story about the Holocaust. It alternated between a ten-year-old French Jewish girl and an American journalist who wants to tell her story. I also wanted to explore the difference between occupied France and the non-occupied portion. France has not really owned up to what they had done during the war until rather late.
EC: The pictures at the end of the book?
KH: My husband and I took a trip there for five weeks. We started in Paris and followed Isabelle’s route as she helped the Allied airmen escape. I hope the reader is able to picture in their heads what I pictured in mine.
EC: Did you explore the issue of motherhood?
KH: Yes, and how it impacts courage and heroism. It was easier for Isabelle to be heroic, brave, and a risk-taker because she was only endangering her own life. Her sister, Vianne, represents the fundamental position of the novel, “When would a wife and mother, risk their life, and more important, their child’s life to save a stranger?”
EC: Did you answer that question?
KH: Yes, because this was crucial to making the book work. For me, it came down to the idea, would I want to live in this world or would I rather die than raise my children in a world like that? This is when I would put my children’s life at risk.
EC: Can you compare the two sisters’ heroics?
KH: Vianne did what a lot of people did, become heroic by degree, one small piece at a time. She asks herself if she would risk taking her Jewish best friend’s child and answers yes. She then does it again for another child and rescues more Jewish children. She was on a dangerous path even more because there were Nazis living in her house. Her story was based on a composite of various women who hid Jewish children.
Regarding Isabelle, she might have rescued the airmen because she related to them due to her own abandonment issues. She was young so she was a lot more willing to upset the status quo. In some ways, I am not sure she understood her own risks. I based her story on a Belgium woman named Andrée de Jongh, an amazing woman who repeatedly risked her life helping British and American servicemen escape on foot from Nazi-occupied Belgium and France.
EC: How would you compare the two Nazis, Von Richter and Beck?
KH: Von Richter was easy to write. He fits the stereotype of what we picture a Nazi to be. I wanted to contrast him with a character that was a little more unexpected, Beck. In some ways he was humane, like when he brought the fake ID for the deported friend’s Jewish child, Ari. I wrote this quote, “You needn’t worry, Madame,” he said. “We have been admonished to act as gentlemen. My mother would demand the same, and, in truth, she scares me more than my general. It was such an ordinary remark that Vianne was taken aback.” But other times he was cruel as he whipped the Jews going into the trains headed for the Concentration Camps, or hoarding food even though he knew Vianne and her children were starving.
EC: Another conflicting character were the sisters’ father, Julien?
KH: He represented how those who fought in WWI felt, considering WWII came on the heels of WWI. The generation of Frenchmen were decimated by the First War. Bust as things happened in WWII he had to decide if he would risk his life for his children. This is when he steps into the heroic role.
EC: Through Isabelle’s character you show some of the brutality of the German Concentration Camps?
KH: I put in this quote, “They broke my body in the first days, but not my heart.” When speaking to survivors a theme that comes up time and again is that their spirit survived. It is impossible to understand what was done, how the Germans were willing to kill people to further their beliefs. The ending came out of wanting to show what the risks were that this family took.
EC: The role of women?
KH: What protected both sisters were that they were women. There was an assumption that women could not do these things. The arrogance of the Nazi soldiers had them assume they had control over everything. Because they were not looking at women, things went undetected, and they did not expect the women to step up. It worked really well in the first years of the war.
EC: An author once said, “greatness comes about when people are presented with incredible problems and are judged on how they will rise or fall.” Do you agree?
KH: Yes, this is perfect. I love that because it is a representation of the two sisters. I hope readers understand what life was like under Nazi rule. How women did what they did to survive, saving their own lives, their children’s live, but other lives as well.
EC: What are your next projects?
KH: Out in the fall of this year is a Netflix series based on my book, Firefly Lane. I think the production did an amazing job. It is about two women who became best friends in the 1970s, soulmates for the rest of their lives.
There will be a movie from The Nightingale book. They were literally two days from starting to film in Hungary when production was shut down because of the virus. The hope is that filming will start again in September. I read the script for it and thought it was lovely because it told the story and honored the characters. I did have input regarding the script. The director reached out to me for questions. I feel like I was kept a part of the process.
My next book will be out in early 2021. I am embargoed to speak about it but can in two weeks so check back then.