I enjoy reading historical fiction, though I can’t say I seek it out; I am less confident in my memory than my imagination, so I suffer the concern that I won’t catch important references or notice anachronisms. Worst of all, I fear I will accept and incorporate textual inaccuracies in my knowledge of actual events. Even in my own relatively short life, though, I’ve seen changes in what is considered to be the “historical fact” in a number of matters, and so I’m well aware that even the most stringently vetted account will have bias. Fiction, given license to stray in its exploration, can use that freedom to hammer home the usual interpretation, or it can provide some alternatives to the story “everybody knows.” This raises another point: how does an author tell a fresh and interesting story when an audience already knows how everything is going to end?
In The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah gives us the tale of two sisters. Older, married and conservative Vianne Mauriac lives at the family homestead, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley with her husband and daughter. The younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol (the eponymous Nightingale), is outspoken and passionate, with an energetic spirit that ill-suits her for either the placid home-life Vianne cultivates or the series of boarding schools from which she has been expelled. Viewed through the lens of memories evoked by an invitation to a reunion celebration for passeurs of the French Resistance and people saved by them, the narrative alternates between present day Oregon and the France of the early 1940s.
Like so many of the physical survivors of the Great War, as it was called, the girl’s father returned having suffered significant trauma to his personality. When his wife dies from an illness, he foists the girls onto a caretaker and retreats to Paris and alcoholism. The difference in ages drives the sisters apart as Vianne retreats into herself and in a few years into her marriage and management of the small estate. Isabelle acts out and is considered wild and irresponsible by the community, none of whom see that her purposelessness is hiding a deep need to belong.
Rumors of war become reality, and the Maginot Line is breached. When the French government surrenders, Isabelle is furious; Vianne believes it is the best attempt to spare the populace a repeat of the death and devastation of the Great War. Isabelle in secret rebellion, becomes a courier for the Resistance, trading on her poor reputation. Who would expect the irresponsible flirt to be passing messages and forbidden propaganda, risking imprisonment and death? This work eventually leads to Isabelle becoming a passeur, and she successfully makes several trips to lead downed Allied pilots and Jewish refugees over the Pyrenees and into Spain before she is captured and interred.
Vianne meanwhile tries to maintain the semblance of normalcy. As her estate is near the Carriveau airstrip, the Germans confiscate and billet an officer at Le Jardin. She is allowed to stay in the house, but the situation deteriorates as the war begins to go poorly for the Axis. When her relatively kind, non-SS officer “guest” is killed, his successor is a Stazi Commander who well fits the stereotype of sadist and sexual abuser. When the war ends, Vianne is pregnant, and as timing allows her husband to believe the child is his, she keeps the truth to herself. Putting it all behind her by moving to the US, she again searches out peace in domesticity.
By a quirk of curriculum the era of the World Wars escaped my study, so my prior ideas of the French Resistance have mostly come from Casablanca and Warner Bros. cartoons.
By a quirk of curriculum the era of the World Wars escaped my study, so my prior ideas of the French Resistance have mostly come from Casablanca and Warner Bros. cartoons. I had not given much thought to the architects of the Vichy regime beyond the label of “collaborators” (or ruder words to that effect). Rather than mere appeasers, the novel gave me a vision of them as struggling with the aftermath of the horror and trauma of the First World War, and who desperately want to avoid inflicting the same sort of conflict on their own sons and daughters. To imagine the events through the eyes of someone who believed those men were truly trying to pursue peace was a different perspective, and it was an interesting and timely reminder that people make governing decisions for a variety of reasons—hindsight offering a clearer sightline than any present moment. It is much harder now for me to think that, somehow, someone should have known the consequences of their actions would so obviously be betrayal and abuse of power, rather than honoring the armistice.
The Nightingale is a well-written novel and deserves its popularity. It is also a valuable reminder that it is much more difficult to have a reasonable angle of perspective on events and their consequences while they occur, and that historical distance really does grant a wider field of view. I found the characters engaging enough I had to put the book aside on occasion and remind myself it was fiction.
Recommended for fans of historically based fiction with a touch of thriller.