In pop culture, the women of the French Resistance often look as though they are poised to step onto a Chanel runway once they dispatch their current obligations. Think Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca or pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s beret-clad cartoon sharpshooter, crying out, “Now, mes petites . . . pour la France!” Our war heroines are often portrayed as beautiful, camera-ready and hypercompetent—but available for rescue by our heroes.
In the cinematic sweep of Sisters of Night and Fog, Erika Robuck artfully upends this trope. Although Violette Szabo and Virginia d’Albert-Lake fill central casting’s ideal of la femme de la résistance, they come across as actual people. Because they were.
During her meticulous research for The Invisible Woman, her World War II-era novel about Allied spy Virginia Hall, Robuck encountered stories about Szabo and d’Albert-Lake. She initially intended them to be characters in the earlier book, then realized that each woman’s story needed more space, so a trilogy was planned. But when Robuck discovered that the arcs of Szabo and d’Albert-Lake intersected in an almost miraculous way, this novel was born.
In many ways, the structure of Sisters of Night and Fog parallels the narrative arc of Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Academy Award-winning film, Life Is Beautiful. When war breaks out, there are rumblings and stirrings, inconveniences and portents. Then, as the monster draws nearer, life takes a quantum leap into something worse but still bearable. In one scene, a woman who houses Violette in Rouen reacts with Gallic stoicism to a pre-bombing leaflet warning her to leave the city: “Petite, I’ve lived seventy years, through two wars. If I go out in a blast, that’s how I go.”
Violette and Virginia are not so lucky as that. They both fall into the hands of the Nazis and are moved from jail to concentration camp. Survival is a minute-by-minute endurance test, and Robuck wrings out every sweat-laden drop of emotion from their plight. You can almost feel your stomach growl when she describes the half-pint of thin rhubarb soup allotted to the prisoners each day. Horror pervades every corner of the camps, yet Robuck manages to keep humanity’s candle flickering at the gates of hell.
Violette and Virginia are two women whose stories needed to be told, particularly now that most of the people who fought in WWII are gone. Robuck has done their memory great honor.