Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale opens in 1995 as an unnamed woman packs her belongings to move into a nursing home at the urging of her son. She ponders, “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. . . . I find myself thinking about the war and my past, about the people I lost.”  Her receipt of an invitation to a ceremony for the passeurs, the courageous men and women who helped many escape during WWII, leads to more memories. A few pages later, it’s 1939 in a small Loire Valley town where Viann, a young mother, adjusts to life under the German occupation while her husband is away fighting. Meanwhile Viann’s father has sent her impetuous younger sister, Isabelle, away from Paris to live with her. The two sisters haven’t gotten along for years and Isabelle’s defiance that led to her dismissal from school doesn’t bode well for life under the occupation especially when a German captain comes to live with them.

Soon Isabelle is secretly delivering papers for the resistance when a chance encounter with a downed British Airman leads her back to Paris where she joins others in planning ways to get men out of the country. She risks her life to save numerous downed paratroopers and scenes depicting her courage, grit, and strength set this novel apart from other tales of the resistance.

While Isabelle travels the country, the Nazi attitude toward the Jews in the Loire Valley grows more hostile, and Viann finds herself risking her own life and that of her daughter to save the lives of other children. Viann’s growth as a character and her decisions to do what she must to survive strengthen the narrative. The suspense behind which sister’s memories recount the tale and the uncertainty as to whether one or both survived the war makes this more than a simple recounting of their heroics.

Kristin Hannah’s previous novels have primarily been light, domestic dramas – more beach reads than anything serious; The Nightingale is different. While researching her earlier novel The Winter Garden, a book partly set in WWII Russia, Hannah read about Andrée de Jongh, a 19-year-old Belgian woman, who, along with her father, started an escape route through the Pyrenees Mountains to get downed airmen out of Nazi-occupied areas. That story led Hannah to research what ordinary French women had done to help the resistance and The Nightingale emerged.

Author Hannah says that the book became the story of “women in war, period. Our stories and our bravery are not acknowledged and talked about as much when it's over. Perhaps that's because women just come home and go back to their families and their ordinary lives and don't talk about it too much. 

I don't want people to forget the heroism of ordinary people and the prices they were paying. The question of the novel that kept coming back to me was, "When would I do this? When would you be willing to risk your child's life as well as your own?”

Summing it Up: Historical fiction fans will relish reading of the actions of the brave French resistance fighters coupled with both terrible deeds and unselfish love that lead to a fresh new take on World War II in France with a page-turner of an ending that may keep you awake long into the night. If you don’t shed a tear or two at the end, you might just be in need of a new heart

Rating: 4 stars   
Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Read an Excerpt: http://kristinhannah.com/content/books_nightingale.php?id=Excerpt
Reading Group Guide: (Spoiler Alert: Don’t read the questions until you finish the book.) http://kristinhannah.com/content/books_nightingale.php?id=Discussion%20Guide
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