One of the struggles for Vianne and Isabelle is their conflicting views on what is “right” during this war. Is it right to protect your child and do whatever it takes even if that means having the enemy sleep in your home? Is it right to fight, to resist, to risk everything including your life and the lives of those you love to free your people?
It’s incredible to think about what an average person’s life was like in occupied France. I can honestly say that this perspective was new for me. I’ve always been aware and captivated by the horrors of the concentration camps. We’ve seen variations of the male presence as soldiers, heroes, villains, spies. What this book does is create a space for those women’s stories that are not in the often-heard historical records. On page 102, Vianne and Isabelle discuss a Nazi versus a member of the Wehrmacht. Vianne asks, “He said he’s in the Wehrmacht. Is that the same thing [as the Nazis]?” This is so interesting to me! Of course there would be confusion. I’m still confused. I had to Google the difference. But they didn’t have Google! They were relying on what they heard on the street, from their neighbors, from banned radios because they knew they couldn’t trust what the Germans were saying. And we haven’t even gotten to the Gestapo yet. I thought this was so tactful of Hannah to include because it lends truth to these women’s lives.
Can we just discuss the yarn on the tree for a minute? This is such a sad visual. It reminded me of the yellow ribbons we tie to trees for our servicewomen and men, this telltale sign of a home who is missing someone. Why do we do this? We know they are gone. Are we afraid we will forget?
We get to meet another woman, Mother Superior Marie-Therese, who I saw as a mother for Vianne in the familial sense and not just the religious. Hannah could have easily used a priest, but she didn’t and that makes me happy. It sets up later scenes and also underlines the importance of women in the war. Yes, a priest could have filled that role and the priest’s absence can be explained away for various reasons. I’m glad she went with the Mother. We all need mothers.
While reading, I was continually struck by Hannah’s descriptions of the town, of their hunger, of the cold. The Nazi Germany takeover and the depth of their power over the French people is terrifying. It wasn’t just a matter of them flying their flags. The mental and physical torture are beyond comprehension, yet I know they happened.
page 197 A great detail: “Signs in bold, black lettering offered directions in German, and the clocks had been changed to run two hours ahead–on German time.” Did y’all know this? The French couldn’t even keep their time. Time is precious, isn’t it?
We love Gaetan. I love Gaetan. I love Gaetan and Isabelle and their love that is trying not to be love but can’t handle being love because love is powerful.
I can’t even talk about THE LIST. My God, Vianne. But how could she have known? We know now because we know what they did to the Jews, to the homosexuals, to the resistors, but if we were there at the time, what would we have done? How much pain and guilt can one person hold?
What about the men in this novel? Julien, Antoine, Beck, Gaetan, Richter…GAH! RICHTER. The good, bad and ugly. Is Beck any better than Richter? Beck didn’t rape Vianne. He tried to help where he could. But he knew about the atrocities. And I’ll never forgive him for Rachel. Julien is a product of the first war. I pity him and want more for him and then he finds redemption. I feel at peace for him by the end of the book. Antoine, BLESS. I think he could guess what Vianne had gone through. Wouldn’t that be every man’s fear during a situation like this? The enemy sleeping in his bed? I find myself wishing that she had told him, just so she could see in him the man she hoped he was, the man that would not fault her for her rape and understand the innocence of her son. Then there’s Gaetan who is sex. That’s it. He’s romance and lust and love in spite of himself. He tries so hard not to be, but Isabelle is a woman in love and he can’t with her. He just can’t not love her.
The children are so important. Isn’t that what we do everything for? Vianne becomes a hero in her own right saving Jewish children. Isabelle is not only saving French children, but the child she once was: the isolated, the left-behind, the lonely girl. She’s now a part of something bigger than herself. Sophie and Ari and Sarah and Julien, the son. Julien is life after a death march. Julien is light after deep darkness that seemed to stretch over the entire earth. Yes, his beginning was the result of hate and defamation and cowardice and loathing and an abuse of power. But he is beauty. And thank God for that.