If you haven’t heard of The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah yet, you’ve been living under a rock. Winner of the GoodReads Choice Awards for Historical Fiction in 2015, it’s still topping the charts since its release in February of 2015. Set in occupied France during World War II, The Nightingale shines a light on the lives of women under Nazi rule, and the dangerous roles they played in heroic acts of subterfuge and defiance.
Vianne and Isabelle are sisters who couldn’t be more different. Their mother had died young and their father, a World War I survivor, was fairly absent from their lives, usually from the drink. Vianne, the eldest, grew up fast, married early, and took over the family home. The father moved to Paris and nobody had time for Isabelle. She was the rebel and the rule breaker, constantly escaping from boarding school or getting kicked out.
When the threat of Germany was beating on France’s door, the men were called into active duty, including Vianne’s young husband. Vianne was alone with her daughter in their country home while Isabelle was in Paris with her father after being kicked out of the last school when Germany finally invaded. Her father quickly sends her to Vianne’s home in a sea of fleeing Parisians while bombs fall from the sky.
Vianne and Isabelle are reunited for the first time in years and they are still at odds. Isabelle wants to do something – she wants to fight. Vianne wants to lay low in order to keep her child safe. When the Nazis come to their small town and a Nazi captain billets at their family home, they eventually go their separate ways.
Drawn into the Resistance distributing anti-Nazi flyers, Isabelle ups her game and moves to Paris to join an underground of freedom fighters. Under code name ‘Nightingale’ she helps lead downed American, Canadian, and British pilots to the safe zone – on foot through the Pyrenees. Vianne is fighting her own wars in her small town when the cattle cars begin to round up the Jews. Under the torment of constant threat and prying eyes, and the intense fear of losing her daughter, she fosters the courage to hide Jewish children – even with a Nazi living in her house. The danger is extreme.
“I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger. We knew the risks and took them anyway.”
As the war intensifies and the Nazis finally begin to feel the threat from the Allies, and when they realize that much of the Resistance was made up of the women they had not suspected, the Nazi rage intensifies. Women and children are rounded up and shot in the streets, people are hung from lampposts as warnings, people are taken away by the Gestapo in midnight screams – never to be heard from again. Any single day could be their last.
“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.”
The beautiful and tragic component to the story is the relationship between Vianne and Isabelle, and with their father. Neither Vianne nor Isabelle fully understand the situation that the other is in. And the father, surreptitiously watching both from the shadows, has realized far too late what a gift his daughters had been.
The Nightingale reminded me of Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein which showcased female pilots in World War II (they were allowed to pilot in the English air force). The parts that women played in the war are often untold. And it was a critical part especially in German controlled countries such as France where most of the men had been killed or sent to camps, leaving mostly women, children, and the elderly to brave the brutality of the Nazis and figure out ways to hit back.
Stock up on tissues for this one. From the torture room to the cattle cars, from the death camps to the heartless executions of the smallest and most innocent – there are the expected gut-wrenching scenes and Kristin Hannah doesn’t attempt to mollify any of it. But in the heart of the story lies bravado, extreme cunning, and the courage to help others. It’s a story of humanity versus the loss of it, and of the unbreakable bond between family.
Five million stars.