It’s difficult to overstate the disastrous impact World War II had on civilians caught in its many war zones. These stories are often overshadowed by tales from the front, but these days the more unusual contributions of civilians to the war effort are being recognized more and more, as in movies like The Imitation Game. Kristin Hannah’s moving The Nightingale joins these ranks to take a look at the experiences of ordinary people and the great reserves of courage and innovation the fighting called forth from them.
The heroines of this story are two sisters, the somewhat matronly Viann and the younger and wilder Isabelle. Having lost their mother as children, with a father who is too torn up with grief and the effects of the last world war, the two are not close. Besides, Viann, who married young, is happy to concentrate on her pretty little daughter, Sophie, and her loving husband, the town postmaster.
Then comes the war. Viann’s husband is mobilized, but since France capitulated to Germany with hardly a shot being fired, things in their town are not too bad at first. But when the Nazis start billeting their soldiers among the townsfolk, life deteriorates. Jewish friends and colleagues are humiliated, then rounded up. Food and fuel become scarce.
Meanwhile, Isabelle enters the resistance. Her task is to find downed British then American airmen and guide them over the Pyrenees into Spain, a trip so grueling that it made this reviewer's feet hurt just to read it. Her code name is Nightingale, the English version of her real last name: Rossignol. Having saved hundreds of Allied airmen, she becomes one of the Nazis' most wanted.
The book is narrated by an omniscient narrator and a woman, now elderly and ill, who decides to return to France to accept honors for her bravery and sacrifice during the war. If nothing else made you cry during this book, this part, with its gentle twists and surprises, should do it.