Back in June, our book club read and discussed Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce, the fictional story of a female London writer aspiring to be a war correspondent during World War II but inadvertently becoming an advice columnist in a women’s magazine. One of my discussion questions was “how was this book different from what you expected?” I asked this because I was a bit disappointed that the main character, once derailed from her dream, didn’t try to get back on track. For sure, she helped out with the war effort by working the phones at the fire station. She also kept her chin up as she continued to frequent cafes and shows in the midst of the Blitz. Some readers may argue that she served women through her magazine responses by answering their concerns in an emotionally honest and encouraging way, but I wasn’t convinced that this was enough to satisfy the character. I wanted something more for her.
Or perhaps, I was just searching for a different character.
“I could be a war hero, Christophe.”
He laughed. “A girl? A hero? Absurd.”
Isabelle got to her feet quickly, yanking up her hat and white kid gloves.
“Don’t be mad,” he said, grinning up at her. “I’m just tired of the war talk. And it’s a fact that women are useless in war. Your job is to wait for our return.” (34)
But Isabelle refuses to hear that she can’t be useful, even when the love of her life tapes a goodbye note to her chest that reads: “You are not ready.” (79)
Whatever her lover’s intentions with the note, Isabelle pursues resistance with even more resolve, simultaneously upset that she is overlooked as a woman and aware that that oversight works to her advantage to break through checkpoints.
This epic tale takes the reader through the entire war, pausing at each stage to demonstrate the women adjusting to their new realities. For the fighting sister, the reader sees how she bravely helps the underground movement to free France and return fallen English and American pilots to their homelands. For the sister sheltering in place, the reader sees her making incomprehensible decisions -- to comply with orders, including freely offering names of Jewish and Communist neighbors -- all in the name of protecting her own, forcing the reader to question what it means to be complacent and what it means to survive.
As Vianne reflects on her actions, she seeks the advice of her confidant, Mother Superior, who tells her:
“Don’t think about who they are. Think about who you are and what sacrifices you can live with and what will break you...The path of righteousness is often dangerous. Get ready...This is only your first test. Learn from it...You’re not alone, and you’re not the one in charge...Ask for help when you need it, and give help when you can. I think that is how we serve God -- and each other and ourselves -- in times as dark as these.” (165-6)
And indeed, as the story unfolds, Vianne too chooses to risk her dwindling security in order to provide aid and shelter to those persecuted by the Nazis.
Hannah’s tale is centered completely on the women, and I got the sense from page one that these women were especially in the dark about the state of Europe and Hitler’s intentions. Overall, they couldn’t believe something like this would happen again...after they had just lost a generation to the Great War. And they weren’t invited to the discussion where they could act on their views. Women didn’t get the right to vote in France until de Gaulle’s government in exile awarded it to them in July 1944. Perhaps this oversight also allowed Hitler’s soldiers to overlook French women in the ways described in Hannah’s novel as well. Still, the Nazis eventually caught on, imprisoning the female resisters at camps like Romainville and Ravensbruck.
At the end of the book, the narrator’s son asks why he never heard these stories of resistance during the war. The narrator explains,
“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.” (561-2)
By the end of the story, the narrator wishes to change all of that: “I always thought it was what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be known.” (5)
That is the point of The Nightingale: to elevate the stories of so many women who served anonymously during the war. In her author’s note, Hannah describes the story of “a young Belgian woman named Andree de Jongh, who had created an escape route for downed airmen out of Nazi-occupied France. Her story -- one of heroism and danger and unbridled courage -- mesmerized [her] and led [her] to other stories about the women of the French Resistance. Women who had saved Jewish children and rescued downed airmen and put themselves in harm’s way to save others. Women who had paid terrible, unimaginable prices for their heroism.” (569)
Hannah wrote The Nightingale so that we would remember these women. And truly, the saga of Isabelle and Vianne is unforgettable. Consider picking up this book, but know that remembering the past requires bravery too. Come prepared. Bring your tissues.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.