“In love we find out who we want to be, in war we find out who we are.”
Sometimes books reach out from their shelves to grab you by the collar and shake you. This was the case with Kristin Hannah (Home Front, Firefly Lane)’s The Nightingale. The above quote was, according to the author’s note, the heart behind this novel. It’s a haunting thought. It made me ask, who would I be? What would I do?
The Nightingale tells the story of two sisters. Vienne is a stay-at-home wife and mother who is stronger than she knows. Her younger sister, Isabelle, is a fiery, independent woman who is repeatedly expelled from various finishing schools. When the Nazis occupy France, each sister is faced with that haunting question: who are they really? What will they do to survive and protect the ones they love?
Vienne always believed she was the weak one, only able to be courageous when her husband was able to fight on her behalf. But when she is left to care for her daughter alone while her husband is enlisted, she must stand on her own. This is intensified when the war arrives in her village and then her home.
Isabelle, on the other hand, can’t wait to help the Resistance. But her idealism has no place in the village, and no one believes that a young woman like her could be capable of anything beyond flirtation. Her fight for France and for the ones she loves is a tale of self-discovery with the highest of stakes.
It’s no secret that I love this time period. Its people were resilient, self-sacrificing, and courageous as I can only hope to be. As a white American, I don’t know what it’s like to live in an occupied country, but the prospect is horrifying. Author Kristin Hannah excels in describing a life full of increasingly scant rations and Nazi soldiers taking over one’s household, along with everything else. It’s difficult to imagine normalcy becoming a luxury, but Ms. Hannah’s skillful writing helps. A lot.
There’s a lot of material to read about the war, especially from a male perspective, but I haven’t read much about the ones left behind. It’s a side that’s always fascinated me. Especially the French Resistance. I like to think that’s what I would have been part of, had I lived then. Women were the ones who were least suspected as deadly, strategic freedom-fighters, but as this book reveals, they were some of the most impressive war heroes.
It was an era when women were given the chance to do things outside of the household, and they did so with alacrity and distinction. When the men left to fight, the women took jobs in factories and in offices. They drove ambulances, worked as mechanics, built bombs, cracked codes. They found ways to stretch food and clothing at home, then went to work to keep the world running while it crashed around their ears.
My grandparents were so present in my mind while reading this book. They were the ones who had to answer the question, “what would I do?” One of my grandfathers was an Italian immigrant who chose to fight for America, his adopted country. He was only enlisted for six months before the government asked him to return to farming, his civilian profession, and coincidentally the one they needed most at the time. I tried telling him once how impressed I was that he chose to fight for America instead of Italy. He had a choice, and he had family in both countries, so to take up arms for one meant siding against another. But he just shrugged. For him the choice was natural. America was his home, and he wanted to defend it.
Bring tissues for this one. Ms. Hannah drew me in, making a distant era real, relevant, and personal as my heart entwined with the lives, loves, and losses of the characters. I found it impossible to avoid self-reflection as I read, and the images and emotions conjured by the scenes will stick with me for years to come.
It’s a stunning, haunting, absolutely gripping novel. I wanted to share it with strangers. It’s one thing to read and remember, but it’s another to read and be inspired. I was inspired.