History Has A View From The Ground, Too


The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

This is a difficult book to dislike – I tried, unsuccessfully. Hannah’s writing is uneven; in places it reads like a Harlequin, in others like the best literature. Perhaps this was a difficult book to write; the author admits to something like that in her Acknowledgements section.

But the story:

Vianne and Isabelle Rossignol, two young and beautiful French women, are functionally abandoned by their father and Vianne’s husband during the onset of the German conquest of France during WWII. Their money soon runs out, and the German occupiers become harder, more demanding. As the war wears on in the east, the two sisters take different paths to resistance. Vianne shelters Jewish children and Isabelle finds and hides Allied pilots who have been shot down, and then she guides them over the Pyrenees, where they can escape to safety. Finally the war is over, Vianne pregnant from a German rapist, Isabelle sick and deranged from her time in a women’s concentration camp, and they find rebuilding their lives all but impossible.

What Hannah has done here is to drop far below the normal scope of history, its facts and panorama, to the level at which humanity truly exists. At this level, emotions govern; they bind together despite the tortuous divisions of war. They help to heal, where the larger society has no potency. This is the true level of reality, and Hannah succeeds in depicting it. While the book’s flaws, the writer’s sometimes sketchy skills, diminish the story somewhat, at book’s end Hannah’s writing rises to the highest emotional levels of which such a book is capable. Her story of the near-invisible, un-thanked role of women during WWII is an admirable one, and it’s for this reason that this book should be read, over and over.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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