An Occupied France Reading List
We spent last autumn in the province of Normandy, traipsing down damp country lanes and eating crusty baguettes with thick slices of blue cheese. On a particularly wet day, we squeezed into a friend’s car and drove to the infamous Omaha Beach. Tourists posed against monuments and children climbed across ruined bunkers like playground equipment. I’d studied World War Two at school and yet, still found it difficult to envision the realities of Germany's occupation of France. It was only when I found a copy of The Nightingale tucked away in one of the bookshelves of the house that I developed a new understanding into the plight of ordinary french people during the occupation. Literature can provide a deep sense of connection to history, and when we engage with a fictional character’s journey, we develop an understanding and empathy of real historical events.
The Kites by Romain Gary, 2017.
The Kites was published in France in 1980 but was only recently translated to English in 2017. The novel is set in a small Normandy village, in the years leading up to and during World War Two. The story is narrated by the eccentric orphan Ludo, who is raised by his kite-making, postman and pacifist uncle, Ambroise Fleury. Four years before the war begins, Ludo falls deeply in love with the elusive polish aristocrat, Lila. Ludo’s intense longing and passion for Lila inspire him to join the French resistance in an attempt to save her from the Nazi reign. In the novel, resistance comes in all forms. Ambroise’s kites hide political messages within the airborne dragonflies and castles, while chef Marcellin Duprat fights with French cuisine instead of bullets. The resistance is concerned with protecting culture as much as country. The novel is a thought provoking read, preoccupied with morality and human choices.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, 2015.
The Nightingale is a story about women in wartime and the battles they fight on the home front. Vianne lives in a rural village in the Loire Valley with her husband, Antoine and their young daughter, Sophie. When the Nazis invade France, Antoine is sent to a Nazi war camp and a Vianne is forced to house a German soldier in her home. Vianne’s younger and more reckless sister, Isabelle, secretly joins the resistance in Paris. The two sisters are bonded by blood but estranged by their experience, passions and convictions. Kristin Hannah empathetically navigates a complex relationship between two sisters, who take two divergent paths to survive. Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel is not a difficult read. The uncomplicated writing style and pleasantly light tone, results in a more comforting read than one may expect.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, 2014.
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is about a 16-year-old blind French girl and a 17-year-old German boy, whose paths converge in occupied France. Mari-Laure lives in Paris with her Papa, a keeper of the keys at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle. In 1940, the father and daughter escape the capital and find refuge with Uncle Etienne, who lives in the town of Saint-Malo, on the coast of Brittany. On the other side of the war is teenage orphan, Werner. Werner is gifted with an ability to fix anything - but specialises in radios. After he repairs the radio of a Nazi official, he is recruited to the Hitler Youth and eventually, to the German Army. The novel explores our choices, and whether we truly have the free will to make them. It reminds us that everyone is a victim of war: allied or axis, French or German.