Maggie Paxson is an anthropologist who uses analytical methods to see how groups of people click. In her fieldwork, Paxson has seen countless examples of conflict and violence—so many, in fact, that she didn’t want to study war no more (as the old spiritual goes). She wanted to study peace. But instead of going “down by the riverside,” Paxson went to a plateau: the Plateau du Vivarais-Lignon in southern France.
The people of the plateau are extraordinary. They have provided refuge to the hunted and unwanted for centuries. Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, honored the plateau village of Le Chambon as “Righteous Among Nations” for their aid to Jewish refugees. Daniel Trocmé, who was a distant relative of Paxson, died in a concentration camp because he refused to abandon his Jewish students. Even now, the plateau continues to welcome and protect refugees. Here, Paxson thought, was the perfect laboratory for determining how peace can be created by a community. The Plateau is the result.
Paxson soon discovered that, unlike the individual acts of violence that make up a war, peace cannot be counted. Peace is not linear but is the result of the deliberate interaction of the past with the present to create a future. Consequently, Paxson’s book is also nonlinear. She pieces together her own memories, observations from her life among the inhabitants of the plateau and, especially, the details of Daniel Trocmé’s life and death. Paxson’s beautiful writing threads these stories together so exquisitely that at times I had to stop and take a breath, even cry, before carrying on.
Although it has elements of memoir, biography and anthropological fieldwork, The Plateau is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a complex portrait of a place whose inhabitants have made a commitment to loving the stranger who arrives at their door, even when to do so demands the greatest sacrifice. Paxson acknowledges the difficulty and danger that this kind of love demands, but ultimately The Plateau demonstrates that it isn’t an impossible ideal to achieve. It is real and attainable, because it has been and continues to be practiced on the plateau.