Book Club review, November 2015
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
blog by Cindy Bushey
Just one word – Wow! It is rare that all of Zion’s readers agree about a book, but that amazing event happened this month. We all found The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah to be a fabulous novel. While it may be the author’s first venture into historical fiction, it likely will not be the last. Set in France during World War II, it traces the stories of two sisters. Vianne, the elder, tries to survive the occupation while protecting her daughter; Isabelle, the younger rebellious sister, joins the French resistance and eventually leads downed Allied airman over the Pyrenees to safety in Spain – multiple times. The two sisters lost their mother at an early age and were rejected by a grief-stricken father. While dealing with their own grief, they grew apart rather than closer and so, too, their views on the invasion of France.
Ms. Hannah has a deft touch with description and brought the day-to-day travails of an occupied people to piercing light, drawing our readers into the story. The mental anguish, the agony of choices, the dehumanization of their Jewish neighbors, the fear that consumed every waking minute as the German conquerors took everything of worth and left only the dregs for the conquered. It certainly put our readers in “there but for the grace of God go I” situations constantly as we wondered how far we would go to save our families. What moral choices would we make? How would we live with the guilt of those choices? How would we survive if we suddenly owned nothing and had to sell hidden possessions in the hope of a few cents to purchase almost non-existent bits of meat and other foodstuffs after standing in line for hours? How would we endure bitter winters with little to no heat, suffer chilblains so badly that sores formed on our legs with pain so bad we could hardly stand? When guilt, terror, and worry are constant companions and neighbors turn against neighbors, what does it do to one’s psyche?
When people lose so much and cannot control their future, the kindness of strangers becomes the glue to hold them together over the bad patches. Our readers met a German captain quartered at Vianne’s house and watched his conscience battle with his orders. Isabelle relied on strangers to assist her perilous journeys. Vianne struggled to hide orphans under the nose of the German invaders. Each lived the truth of the book’s statement that in love we find out who we want to be, and in war we find out who we are. Our readers followed these two sisters while we wondered who we might actually be in similar circumstances. As the author had one sister (which one?) reminiscing in the present, we were on the edge of our seats taking in the absolute evil of concentration camps, the blessed end to fighting, the soul-shaking migration of haunted shells of people walking home across Europe. We witnessed life that was a series of impossible choices, the worst of humanity and the best and watched a mother reveal herself to her son and make one last choice to save him pain. Again, wow, what a book!
The similarities of the migration taking place right now in Europe as refugees pour from Syria looking for safety and a better life were not lost on us. Our readers commented on the number of refugees taken in by Germany and speculated if the collective German guilt from World War II still affects the national conscience. We learned from a reader who recently traveled in France that the past is still very much alive as tour leaders routinely spoke about events that happened seventy years ago and the resulting destruction. And as this blog is written, we see France ironically again experiencing death and destruction as multiple suicide bombers and terrorist attacks occurred at five different locations in Paris with over one hundred fifty people dead. The French have a saying “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” – the more things change, the more they remain the same. Evil is rearing its head again, and the conflict threatens to engulf the world. Will love show us who we want to be? Will war show us who we are? Food for thought and so is The Nightingale.
Zion’s readers would recommend this book to anyone because there is something in it for everyone. If you enjoy history, drama, psychology, family dynamics – it’s all here. Four of our readers gave it two thumbs up and five gave it one thumb up. There’s no way to remain neutral about this book.